Judge Drops Gag Order in Case Against 4 Charged in Killing of George Floyd

MINNEAPOLIS (Star Tribune (Minneapolis)/TNS) -
[Left to right] Thomas Lane, Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Derek Chauvin. (Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office/TNS)

The judge overseeing the criminal cases against four ex-police charged in the May 25 killing of George Floyd vacated his previous gag order Tuesday that restricted comments by lawyers and others associated with the cases.

Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill acted in response to objections to the gag order by the defendants and a coalition of news media organizations, including the Star Tribune. He has not yet ruled on a motion seeking a broad release of police body-camera videos, which are currently viewable by the public only by reservation.

Cahill rejected a defense request that he sanction the Minnesota attorney general’s office for violating the gag order. Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank, in a brief filed Tuesday before the motions hearing, called the request for sanctions a ploy to smear prosecutors.

Frank added that the state did not oppose the gag order that Cahill issued earlier this month.

The media coalition — which includes the Star Tribune; Minnesota Public Radio; The Associated Press; local TV stations WCCO, KMSP, KARE and KSTP; and The New York Times Co., among others — argued that Cahill’s order “threatens to prevent the press and the public from obtaining meaningful information related to these highly newsworthy prosecutions from a wide — and overly broad — range of interested parties.”

The four defendants in the case are Derek Chauvin, charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter; and Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane, who are charged with aiding and abetting him.

Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, has also filed a motion arguing that Cahill’s order violates Chauvin’s state and federal constitutional rights to free speech and a public trial. The other three defendants are also seeking to vacate the gag order.

Cahill issued the order after two attorneys in the case spoke to the Star Tribune about their clients. The judge reasoned that further pretrial publicity could taint a Hennepin County jury pool and force a rare change in venue.

With the order still in effect, Earl Gray, who represents Lane, and Robert Paule, who represents Thao, filed separate motions last week objecting to a news release by Attorney General Keith Ellison, who is leading the prosecution. Paule called for sanctions against the office and Gray wrote that Ellison “should be jailed” along with his spokesman John Stiles.

“There is no reason to announce that these so called ‘super stars’ are joining the prosecution and that they’re doing it for free. It is an obvious statement to the public that these ‘super stars’ believe that our clients are guilty,” Gray wrote.

On Tuesday, Frank countered that the news release could not be construed to violate Cahill’s order against disclosing “information, opinions, strategies, plans or potential evidence” in the case. Rather, he said, “it is about staffing matters at this office.”