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Judge postpones trial for 3 ex-cops charged in George Floyd's death

All three officers, in addition to Derek Chauvin, have also been indicted on federal charges alleging they violated Floyd's civil rights. Judge Peter Cahill said he changed the date so the federal case can go forward first.
/ Source: Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS — The trial of three former Minneapolis police officers charged with aiding and abetting in the death of George Floyd will be pushed back to March 2022, a judge ruled Thursday.

Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao were scheduled to face trial Aug. 23 on charges they aided and abetted both murder and manslaughter. The officers’ co-defendant, Derek Chauvin, has already been convicted of murder and manslaughter counts. All four officers also face federal charges that allege they violated Floyd’s civil rights during his May 25 arrest.

Judge Peter Cahill said he changed the date so the federal case can go forward first. He also said he felt the need to put some distance between the three officers’ trial and Chauvin’s due to the publicity around the case.

The news that the trial was being pushed back came during a Thursday hearing on pretrial motions. Defense attorneys for all three former officers agreed to the postponement. The state, via Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank, did not support the delay. It wasn’t made clear at Thursday’s motions hearing who originally sought the change.

Cahill also weighed Thursday a request that prosecutors be sanctioned after media reports that Chauvin had planned to plead guilty a year ago, and allegations that they haven’t disclosed information about the alleged coercion of a witness.

Attorneys for Lane, Kueng and Thao have said they want the court to require prosecuting attorneys to submit affidavits under oath that they aren't responsible for the leak to the media. In a filing late Wednesday, Thao's attorney also alleged that the Hennepin County medical examiner was coerced to include “neck compression” in his findings — and that prosecutors knew of it.

Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office is prosecuting the officers, has said allegations that his office was involved in a leak are false. His office had no immediate comment on the allegations of coercion. A spokeswoman for Dr. Andrew Baker, the medical examiner, said they could not comment due to the pending case.

Chauvin, who was seen in widely viewed bystander video pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck as the Black man said he couldn’t breathe, was convicted in April of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter. He’s to be sentenced June 25.

The former officers waived their right to appear at Thursday’s hearing. Their trial was separated from Chauvin's to comply with Covid-19 courtroom spacing restrictions.

Bob Paule, Thao's attorney, said in a court filing Wednesday that Baker initially said there was no physical evidence that Floyd died of asphyxiation. But after talking twice to Dr. Roger Mitchell – a former medical examiner in Washington, D.C. – Baker amended his findings to include neck compression as a factor, according to Paule.

Paule said in the court filing that in one of the conversations, Mitchell called Baker and told him he was going to submit an opinion piece critical of Baker's findings to the Washington Post. When Baker released final autopsy findings June 1, they included neck compression, Paule wrote, and Mitchell never submitted his piece to the newspaper.

Mitchell, now chairman of the Department of Pathology at the Howard University College of Medicine, did not immediately respond to a phone message left at the department after hours.

Paule also took aim at Mitchell's criticism of Dr. David Fowler, a key defense witness for Chauvin who testified that the former officer was not responsible for Floyd's death. Mitchell sent a letter — signed by 431 doctors from around the country — to the Maryland attorney general, saying Fowler's conclusions were so far outside the bounds of accepted forensic practice that all his previous work could be questioned.

Maryland officials then announced they would review all in-custody death reports during Fowler's tenure. Fowler defended his office’s work to The Baltimore Sun last month and said he worked with others to make autopsy conclusions.

“There's a large team of forensic pathologists, with layers of supervision, and those medical examiners always did tremendous work,” Fowler told the newspaper.

Paule said Mitchell's accusations had a chilling effect on Thao's ability to find medical experts unafraid to testify on his behalf.

He said prosecutors have yet to give the defense evidence about Mitchell's actions. He's asking that the case against Thao be dismissed.

Paule also said in a court filing in February that he wants an order sanctioning the state for “its role — directly or indirectly — in the leaking of highly prejudicial information related to potential plea agreements of co-defendants.”

The New York Times reported Feb. 10 that Chauvin was ready to plead guilty to a third-degree murder charge last year but then-Attorney General William Barr rejected the agreement. The Associated Press published a similar report the next day, citing two law enforcement officials with direct knowledge of the talks. Paule alleged that the leaks came from the state, and asked that anyone who did so be barred from participating in the trial. Tom Plunkett, Kueng's attorney, echoed his statements.

Ellison earlier dismissed Paule's motion as “completely false and an outlandish attempt to disparage the prosecution.”

Earl Gray, Lane's attorney, has a motion asking Judge Peter Cahill to compel the state to disclose all use-of-force reports over the past 50 years in which a Minneapolis police officer used force and another officer intervened verbally or physically. Gray said it's necessary to show the jury that no such intervention has been made in the past 50 years, which would call into question the state’s expert testimony about the duty of officers to intervene.

Prosecutors have said that request should be denied. They've noted that department policy requires officers to intervene when excessive force is used, and say Gray hasn’t shown how the testimony of experts could be called into question by a lack of interventions.