In a historic ruling by Minnesota judge, cameras allowed in courtroom for officers’ trial in death of George Floyd

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Former Minneapolis police officers Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao. (Hennepin County Sheriff's Office)

By Rochelle Olson, Star Tribune

The trial of four former Minneapolis police officers charged in the death of George Floyd will be livestreamed because of a judge’s historic order Thursday allowing cameras and audio in the Minneapolis courtroom for the March trial.

Citing immense global interest in the case, limited courthouse space and restricted public movements because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Judge Peter Cahill said the “only way to vindicate the defendants’ constitutional right to a public trial and the media’s and public’s constitutional rights of access to criminal trials is to allow audio and video coverage of the trial.”

The live broadcast of a high-profile trial in a Minnesota state court is without precedent and the decision was greeted with enthusiasm by the media and First Amendment lawyers who say it is both welcome and overdue. Cameras are rarely allowed, even though many other states have permitted them for decades. Defense attorneys for Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao filed a joint motion in June requesting camera access at all pretrial hearings and at the trial or trials.

But Attorney General Keith Ellison, who is overseeing prosecution, opposed the motion. Typically, Minnesota rules allow trials to be broadcast only if all the parties agreed.

A spokesman for Ellison said only that he is “evaluating” Cahill’s ruling. He has the option to appeal.

Cahill grounded his ruling in the U.S. Constitution, citing the First Amendment guarantee of press and public access to trials as well as the Sixth Amendment guarantee to defendants that the public may see they are “fairly dealt with and not unjustly condemned.”

Under normal circumstances, spectators can come and go from courtrooms as they please, but these are not normal times, the order said. Social distancing requirements because of the pandemic tightly restrict the number of people who can be in courtrooms.

Even though a special courtroom has been configured in Hennepin County for this trial, spacing constraints will allow little — “if any” — room for spectators. “That includes not only family members and friends of George Floyd and the defendants, but also members of the public and the press,” Cahill wrote.

During a recent hearing on the case, the judge noted that a limited number of media were allowed to watch the proceedings in a separate courtroom from a live feed via a static, fixed camera.

In a separate order Thursday, Cahill ordered the four defendants to stand trial together, requiring four socially distanced defense tables for the men and their lawyers. The judge said interest in the case will continue to outstrip the court’s ability to provide access to the trial in the courthouse.

Cahill acknowledged that his ruling went further in providing access than outlined in the Minnesota rules, but he said absent the accommodations, the public would be left with nothing but the arguments of the lawyers. “That is hardly the basis for the public to participate in and serve as a check upon the judicial process,” he wrote.

Mitchell Hamline School of Law Prof. Raleigh Levine said, “This ruling is not only unusual for Minnesota but it goes farther than the U.S. Supreme Court has gone in interpreting the very broad right to public access.” Levine noted that the order is carefully written to address this particular case in these unusual times, not to create a blanket permission of cameras.

“Given the intense feelings that the murder has generated, I think it makes a lot of sense to say we can avoid a lot of angst, we can possibly even avoid protests if people can see what’s going on in the courthouse and reassure themselves as to the fair administration of the trial by the judge,” Levine said.

Defense lawyer Earl Gray, who represents Lane, has tried many cases in Wisconsin where cameras are allowed.

“It doesn’t interfere with anybody’s procedures in the courtroom,” Gray said. “We never show the jury. They’re never on TV. It’s just the witnesses, the judge and the lawyer. I thought that’s way overdue.”

The decision was well received by those who have long advocated for greater transparency in Minnesota courtrooms.

“I’m thrilled,” said Jane Kirtley, a lawyer, professor and director of the Silha Center for Media Ethics and the Law at the University of Minnesota. “This is the kind of memorandum I’m going to give my students to say, ‘This is what a judge should say about cameras in the courtroom.’ ”

Suki Dardarian, Star Tribune managing editor, called the decision historic on many fronts.

“Minnesota’s rules on cameras in the courtroom are among the most restrictive in the country, so we are extremely gratified that the court determined that both the defendants’ right to a fair, public trial and the media’s right of access can be met by providing live coverage,” she said.

Both Kirtley and Dardarian are veterans of the fight for access to proceedings in the 2019 trial of former Minneapolis police officer Mohammed Noor in the death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond.

Because of restrictive rulings by Hennepin County Judge Kathryn Quaintance in that case, a media coalition was formed to fight for access to evidence. Earlier this year, the coalition successfully fought for the release of body camera videos recorded by police officers the night Floyd was killed, which were filed into evidence by their attorneys.

Now, there’s hope that Cahill’s order will be catalytic beyond the Floyd trial, opening courtrooms to cameras in future trials. “If this goes well, we’ll have an example of here’s a case that had all these challenges and everybody’s constitutional rights were protected,” Kirtley said.

Staff writer Chao Xiong contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared on Star Tribune.

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