Judge disqualifies some prosecutors for ‘sloppy’ work in George Floyd case
The ruling was related to a meeting some lawyers had with the medical examiner, a likely witness in the case, which allegedly violated rules of professional conduct for attorneys
By Chao Xiong
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
MINNEAPOLIS — Citing “sloppy” work, a judge on Friday banned Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and three of his staffers from working on the case against the former Minneapolis police officers charged in George Floyd’s death, but is reconsidering after Freeman pushed back.
Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill issued the ruling during a nearly 3 1/2-hour hearing that covered a wide range of topics.
The ruling related to a meeting some staff lawyers had with the Hennepin County medical examiner, a likely witness in the case, which allegedly violated the rules of professional conduct for attorneys.
“I think it was sloppy not to have someone (else) present (at a meeting with) a primary witness in this case,” Cahill said.
Freeman’s office released a statement afterward defending its work. It said Cahill granted a request from the county attorney and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office, which is leading the prosecution, to reconsider the ruling. It’s unclear when that decision would be made.
According to Freeman’s statement, “the meeting was completely routine and if the ruling stands, would make it nearly impossible for prosecutors to obtain, understand and introduce evidence in a case.”
Eric Nelson, who represents former Officer Derek Chauvin, had filed a motion to disqualify Freeman’s entire office from working on the case. He expressed concern that Freeman and three of his attorneys — Deputy County Attorney Andrew LeFevour, Senior County Attorney Amy Sweasy and Assistant County Attorney Patrick Lofton — met with Hennepin County Medical Examiner Andrew Baker in May about the case without a non-attorney present.
That violated state rules for lawyers and turned them into potential witnesses, Nelson argued.
Cahill granted Nelson’s motion in part, disqualifying the four from the case. Other staffers from Freeman’s office would not be banned, the judge said.
Freeman’s office said it followed standards dictated by a Minnesota Supreme Court decision, and that the third party at such meetings does not have to be a non-attorney. The statement added that Sweasy and Lofton had asked to leave the case June 3, meaning they qualified as third parties in the Baker meeting.
Sweasy and Lofton led the state’s first murder conviction against a police officer for the on-duty killing of a civilian. They tried former Officer Mohamed Noor in 2019 for the 2017 fatal shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond.
Hennepin county attorney spokesman Chuck Laszewski declined to specify the reasons for their departure, but said “a team” of county attorneys continues to work on the case.
Friday’s hearing held few other surprises.
Cahill ruled on a few motions and reserved decisions on some key issues, including change of venue motions filed by each defense attorney; a prosecution request to try all four defendants in one trial; and defense motions to dismiss all of the cases.
Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, is charged with one count each of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
His former colleagues — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — each are charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.
Defense attorneys have proposed moving the trial to Clay County, Dakota County or Stearns County, among other options, arguing that news coverage has tainted the local jury pool.
Thao’s attorney, Robert Paule, argued that local jurors might be too concerned about the impact of their verdict given the arsons that occurred after Floyd was killed.
“If I lived in Moorhead I wouldn’t worry about the streets of Moorhead being burned” after a trial, Paule said.
Cahill seemed skeptical. “There really isn’t a county, would you agree, or a state in this country where there hasn’t been a lot of publicity about George Floyd’s death,” he said.
Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank noted that a local jury was selected for the Noor trial despite widespread pretrial publicity in that case.
Attorneys for the Floyd family later said the requests were an attempt to eliminate Black jurors from the trial.
Prosecutors want to try all four defendants in one trial scheduled for March 8 to reduce the impact on Floyd’s family, witnesses and the court’s resources.
Defense attorneys each want separate trials, arguing that their defenses will be antagonistic to each other as they shift blame — chiefly to Chauvin, a 19-year-veteran.
“There are going to be side attacks (from the other defense attorneys) that I’m going to have to deal with,” Paule said.
Cahill pressed three defense teams that wanted to introduce evidence that Floyd was allegedly involved in a 2019 drug case in Minneapolis and a 2007 drug-related robbery in Texas.
Nelson and Plunkett previously filed notices to introduce the evidence; Gray joined the effort Friday.
“What is the possible relevance of that case in this case?” Cahill asked of the Texas case.
Plunkett argued that it would show that Floyd’s history repeated itself during his May 25 encounter with Minneapolis police. Some of the defense teams also have noted that Floyd ingested fentanyl and other drugs and may have died of an overdose.
Cahill ruled against admitting evidence of either case. However, he warned the prosecution that if it argues at trial that Floyd had not ingested drugs the day he died then defense attorneys may revisit the request to admit evidence from the 2019 case. (No cases against Floyd have been presented to the county attorney’s office for prosecution.)
An autopsy found that Floyd had fentanyl intoxication and had recently used methamphetamine.
Attorneys for Floyd’s family called the defendants’ focus on drug use a “character assassination.”
“This is what happens every single time,” said family attorney Justin Miller. “We get killed and then we get killed again in court.”
Ben Crump, a prominent civil rights lawyer representing Floyd’s family, scoffed at suggestions that Floyd died of an overdose.
“The only overdose was an overdose of police force,” he said as hundreds of supporters watched. “Who are you going to believe? Your eyes, or these killer cops?”
Floyd’s relatives addressed supporters who came to protest.
“The nation is standing behind us,” said his brother, Philonise Floyd. “And we all need to come together and realize that we need to stop this. This is wrong. We need justice, and we demand that.”
©2020 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)