Prosecutors in the case of four former Minneapolis officers charged in the death of George Floyd told a judge that the men should face trial together because the evidence and charges against them are similar, and multiple trials could traumatise witnesses and Mr Floyd’s family.
But defence lawyers have argued for separate trials, saying they would likely offer “antagonistic” defences and the evidence against one officer could negatively impact another.
The former officers appeared in court on Friday for a hearing on the prosecution’s request to hold a joint trial, a defence request to move the trial out of Minneapolis, and other issues.
Judge Peter Cahill took most of the issues under advice, but did grant a defence request to remove a local prosecutor from the case.
Mr Floyd, a black man in handcuffs, died May 25 after Derek Chauvin pressed his knee against his neck as Mr Floyd said he could not breathe.
Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter.
Thomas Lane, J. Kueng and Tou Thao are charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and manslaughter.
Chauvin, who is in custody, appeared for previous hearings via videoconference, wearing an orange jail jumpsuit.
But for his first appearance in court, he wore a grey suit and was not handcuffed or shackled.
He did not make eye contact with any of the defendants as he arrived, but Kueng looked at him as he passed and Lane glanced over.
Minnesota’s attorney general Keith Ellison, whose office has taken the lead on prosecution, was seated at one of two prosecution tables in court.
Mr Cahill said on Friday that four Hennepin County prosecutors including county lawyer Mike Freeman, who has long been out of favour with local activists for the way his office has handled cases against police officers, will not participate in the trial because they met with the county medical examiner to discuss the post-mortem results.
Mr Cahill said they could be called as witnesses.
Before the hearing, a few dozen protesters gathered in front of the courthouse, chanting “No justice, no peace”.
One carried a Black Lives Matter flag and wore a black helmet with swim goggles around the back of his head.
Some windows on nearby buildings were boarded up.
Prosecutors said in court filings that the case should proceed with one trial because the evidence, including witness statements, body camera video and police department policy on use of force, is similar for each officer.
Prosecutors say the officers also acted in close concert.
Neal Katyal, an outside special lawyer who is helping the prosecution, told Mr Cahill on Friday that the “interests of justice” favoured one trial because of the extra burden multiple trials would place on the court and witnesses.
“We’re talking about delaying justice for months, if not years,” he said.
Mr Katyal also said the likely heavy publicity over a verdict in a first trial could prejudice the jury pool for later trials.
And he expressed worry about the strain multiple verdicts would have on the public.
A joint trial “would allow the community to absorb the verdicts at once. … We don’t think they should be put through the trauma of four different jury verdicts”, Mr Katyal said.
Defence lawyer Earl Gray, who represents Lane, and other lawyers argued briefly against trying the ex-officers together but relied mostly on the arguments they submitted in their briefs.
Mr Gray said one advantage to separate trials would be that if Chauvin is tried first and acquitted, the others would essentially be cleared.
Finger-pointing already prevailed in defence court filings.
Lawyers for Lane and Kueng argued their clients were inexperienced officers who were following Chauvin’s lead.
Thao’s lawyer, Bob Paule, said his client’s role was “absolutely distinct” from the others, because he was on crowd control and was securing the scene while the other three restrained Floyd.
Chauvin’s lawyer, Eric Nelson, wrote that his client’s defence will be different, because prosecutors must prove Chauvin intended to assault Floyd, but they must also show that the other officers knew of Chauvin’s intent before it happened.
“The other defendants are clearly saying that, if a crime was committed, they neither knew about it nor assisted in it,” Mr Nelson wrote.
“They blame Chauvin.”
But Chauvin pointed fingers at the others.
Mr Nelson wrote that Lane and Kueng, the officers who responded to a forgery call, initiated contact with Floyd before Chauvin and Thao arrived, and that Chauvin believed Floyd was overdosing on fentanyl.
Mr Nelson wrote that while Lane and Kueng called for a paramedic and believed Floyd was “on something”, they did not elevate the call to one of more urgency or give medical assistance.
“Instead, they struggled to subdue Mr Floyd and force him into their squad car, likely exacerbating his condition considerably,” Mr Nelson wrote, adding that Chauvin could argue that their inaction led to Mr Floyd’s death.
“If EMS had arrived just three minutes sooner, Mr Floyd may have survived.
“If Kueng and Lane had chosen to de-escalate instead of struggle, Mr Floyd may have survived.
“If Kueng and Lane had recognised the apparent signs of an opioid overdose and rendered aid, such as administering naloxone, Mr Floyd may have survived,” Mr Nelson wrote.
Lawyers for all four men have also asked that the trial be moved from Minneapolis, saying pre-trial publicity has made it impossible for them to receive a fair trial.