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Prosecutors say barring witnesses in case against ex-officers in George Floyd death deprives them of fair trial

13January 2022

Federal prosecutors say a judge’s decision to prohibit some witnesses from testifying in the upcoming civil rights case against three former Minneapolis officers will hinder their argument and “deprive the government of its right to a fair trial.”

Earlier this week, U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson said attorneys on both sides of the federal trial must hasten their cases to reduce the chances of a COVID-19 outbreak that could burn through jurors and upend the proceedings. Magnuson singled out the prosecution’s list of 48 witnesses as too long, and said he won’t allow what he deemed unnecessary testimony from a 10-year-old and more than one medical expert.

In a response filed late Wednesday, prosecutors say they plan to pare down their witness list and heed the concerns about the virus interfering with the trial. “That said, the pursuit of justice should not become a subordinate interest to brevity here,” prosecutors wrote. “This case involves constitutional violations by sworn law enforcement officers that resulted in the death of a man, and neither COVID nor concerns about security should limit the government or the defense from presenting its case.”

Jury selection is scheduled to begin next Thursday for former officers Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane, all charged with civil rights violations in connection with the murder of George Floyd. At the same time, the omicron variant has knocked Minnesota into a period of record-high positivity rates, leading politicians in Minneapolis and St. Paul to impose renewed restrictions this week on going into indoor public spaces.

In a hearing Tuesday, Magnuson expressed grave concerns about how the virus could disrupt the trial. He said an outbreak could result in a scenario in which “we all go home,” seeming to suggest the threat of a mistrial in the high-profile federal case.

In his order, Magnuson dismissed the testimony of Judeah Reynolds as “unnecessary and likely only offered to elicit sympathy.” Reynolds was 9 years old when she saw the four Minneapolis officers detaining Floyd on May 25, 2020. She testified in the state’s trial last year against the fourth officer, Derek Chauvin, about the trauma she endured as a witness to the fatal encounter.

In their response to the judge, prosecutors said Reynolds is not a mere prop, and that her testimony is needed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Floyd had an objectively serious medical need, “meaning one that is so obvious that even people with no formal medical training would recognize that care is required.”

“Viewed through this lens, it is significant that a then-9-year-old observed and immediately understood that Mr. Floyd needed medical attention,” said the U.S. Attorney’s motion.

Prosecutors also objected to Magnuson’s ruling that calling multiple medical experts to testify would be “inefficient” and “improper.” Prosecutors plan to call two medical experts, including Andrew Baker, who they say is limited to his specialized expertise as Hennepin County Medical Examiner.

“Dr. Baker is a medical examiner and, quite simply, only treats the dead,” the motion states.

For this reason, prosecutors say, they want to call a second expert who can speak to medical issues such as how the officers’ compression on Floyd’s airway and torso could hinder his ability to breathe, how resuscitation could have saved him and specific effects of the combination of fentanyl and methamphetamine.

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