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State trial for ex-Minneapolis officers Thao, Kueng delayed until January

But the judge denied the defense’s request to change venues for the trial because of pretrial publicity

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Former Minneapolis police officers J. Alexander Kueng (left) and Tou Thao.

Photo/Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office via AP

By Paul Walsh
Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS — The state trial of two fired Minneapolis police officers charged in connection with the death of George Floyd two years ago has been delayed from next week until January.

The cases against Tou Thao and J. Alexander Kueng have been rescheduled for a joint trial on Jan. 5, with jury selection set for Jan. 9 and opening statements on Jan. 30, Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill ruled Monday. Jury selection in the case was set to begin June 14. Opening statements were slated for July 5.

A defense request for a change of venue for the trial because of pretrial publicity was denied. Cahill wrote that Floyd’s death and subsequent events “have had saturation news coverage” in the state and nationally, and the defendants “have not developed ... any firm basis upon which this court might conclude there exist other counties in this state that have been less impacted by the pervasive, saturation publicity George Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020, and these cases have received.”

Kueng and Thao are charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death. Co-defendant Thomas Lane accepted a plea deal last month, meaning he will avoid the state trial. He agreed to a sentence of three years.

Kueng, Lane and Thao were convicted in federal court in February of violating Floyd’s civil rights and causing his death. They have not yet been sentenced for that conviction. In court last Tuesday, the defense attorneys say they believe the sentencing won’t take place until late summer — after the state’s trial is wrapped.

Cahill’s order nodded to the pending sentences in federal court and left many months of time for either of them to plead guilty. The judge said he will accept no plea agreements reached by the County Attorney’s Office and either defendant until after their federal court sentencings, which have yet to be scheduled.

The terms of the federal sentencings could affect the thinking of prosecutors or the defense about whether to reach a plea agreement in state court.

Fellow fired officer Derek Chauvin still awaits sentencing for the federal felonies, which come on top of the 221⁄2 years in prison he’s serving for murder and manslaughter convictions in state court for Floyd’s killing.

Chauvin’s pleas mean he will avoid two more lengthy trials. The government is recommending a 25-year sentence, shorter than the life sentence he faced if found guilty at trial. He would serve the sentence concurrently with his state sentence, and in a federal prison, under recommendations in the plea agreement.

Cahill cited the defendants’ rights to a fair trial for his order to push back their trial by seven months: Lane’s recent guilty plea in state court and a federal court jury’s conviction of Thao, Kueng and Lane of violating Floyd’s civil rights.

“These two recent events and the publicity surrounding them are significant in [that] it could make it more difficult for jurors to presume Thao and Kueng innocent of the state charges,” the judge wrote, adding that the delay should “diminish the impact of this publicity on the defendants’ right and ability to receive a fair trial from an impartial and unbiased jury.”

Last week, the attorneys for Thao and Kueng told Cahill it would be impossible to select an impartial jury in a city that just days ago marked the two-year anniversary of Floyd’s death, reigniting worldwide news coverage of a police murder that started a reckoning over brutality in American policing.

The attorneys listed new developments they say could taint the jury pool, including the recent guilty plea from Lane, the February guilty verdicts for all three former officers in federal court, the settling of costly civil rights lawsuits and public comments from politicians such as Attorney General Keith Ellison.

During last week’s hearing, Thao attorney Robert Paule held up the Star Tribune’s Variety section to the Zoom camera, which contained a story about a PBS Frontline/Star Tribune documentary that premiered last week following the newspaper’s coverage of Floyd’s killing and the aftermath.

“I’ve never had nor heard of a case in Minnesota with this much publicity,” Paule said. “I don’t know what other choice we have at this point” but to move the trial.

The prosecutor asked Cahill to reject the last-minute request, calling it a play at the same type of sympathetic media coverage the defense claimed to be lambasting.

“Very little has really changed since your honor denied previous motions,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank. People across Minnesota know the details of the case, he said, so a change of venue would not make a difference.

“We have faith in the ability of jurors to take their job seriously and do it fairly,” Frank said.

Thomas Plunkett, attorney for Kueng, said questions over jury fairness may be grounds for an appeal in the case of the fourth former officer, Derek Chauvin. Plunkett was referencing how one of the jurors who helped find Chauvin guilty had attended the March on Washington anniversary in 2020.

Star Tribune staff writer Andy Mannnix contributed to this report.

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