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St. Paul to host federal civil rights trial for ex-Minneapolis cops in Floyd's death

4December 2021

St. Paul officials are raising concerns about the prospect of hosting the federal civil rights trial for the four former Minneapolis police officers indicted in connection with George Floyd’s murder in 2020.

U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson is set to preside over the trial, which is on track to start in January at the federal courthouse in downtown St. Paul.

U.S. District Chief Judge John Tunheim said cases are randomly assigned to federal judges in the state to ensure workloads are divided up equally and lawyers can’t pick who oversees their cases. Magnuson, a former chief U.S. district judge for Minnesota, has chambers in St. Paul and hears assigned cases there, Tunheim said.

In recent weeks, as St. Paul police officials consulted with the U.S. Marshals Service, city leaders have created a laundry list of challenges they say the trial would pose, ranging from security to congestion and costs.

“The Minneapolis federal courthouse is a more ideal location to hold this extremely high-profile federal trial,” St. Paul Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher wrote to Tunheim and U.S. District Clerk Kate Fogarty, according to e-mails obtained by the Star Tribune. “The fact that the Minneapolis location already has a fully developed and tested security plan is certainly at the top of the list.”

In the Nov. 24 email, Tincher noted that the 1960s-era federal courthouse in St. Paul is smaller than its Minneapolis counterpart and would not allow defendants to enter the building out of public view. She added that there would be little space for protesters to exercise First Amendment rights outside the courthouse and that demonstrators might use the St. Paul skyway system to get out of the cold.

Tincher wrote that protests could affect nearby Green Line light-rail traffic and that the courthouse is only blocks from two schools and two day care centers. Protests at the State Capitol or the governor’s residence on Summit Avenue — traditional hot spots for demonstrations — could stretch the city’s resources even more, she said.

“We are starting the process to work through the obstacles outlined above should the trial be held at the St. Paul federal courthouse, but this would be a heavy lift on the St. Paul Police [Department], St. Paul Fire [Department], numerous other St. Paul city [departments], our East Metro Response Group (EMRG) partners, and would be an expensive undertaking for the city of St. Paul,” Tincher wrote.

In an e-mail to city department heads Friday, Tincher asked staffers to estimate how much money and staff time the city will need to handle the trial. In an interview Saturday, Police Chief Todd Axtell said St. Paul would likely be on the hook for a dollar figure in the millions.

“We learned of the venue for this trial being in our city late in the game, but as always we will be prepared with our east metro partners to protect property, people and free speech,” Axtell said.

He added: “This trial in our city will come with significant costs to St. Paul taxpayers, and I am beyond disappointed that this trial will be held outside the city where the incident occurred.”

Hennepin County spent about $3.7 million on courthouse security, employee salaries and other expenses during Derek Chauvin’s highly publicized state court trial last spring, when a jury convicted the former Minneapolis police officer of murder. Minneapolis police spent $2.9 million on overtime pay for Operation Safety Net, the multiagency group that coordinated security for Chauvin’s trial.

Former officers Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao, along with Chauvin, all face Justice Department charges of abusing their positions as police officers to deprive Floyd of his constitutional right to be “free from the use of unreasonable force” when Chauvin pinned Floyd down for more than nine minutes and the others did not intervene. All four have pleaded not guilty to the civil rights charges.

Peter Leggett, communications director for St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, said in a statement Saturday: “While we have shared our concerns with the court, we will continue our preparations with law enforcement partners should this trial move forward at the federal courthouse in our city.”

Chauvin also faces a separate two-count indictment, assigned to U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina Wright, who is also based at the St. Paul courthouse. Those federal charges allege he willfully deprived a 14-year-old Minneapolis boy of his civil rights during a 2017 arrest.

The other three former officers are scheduled for trial in March in state court on charges of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.

Tunheim said Magnuson could choose to move the case to the Minneapolis courthouse but has not indicated any plans to do so. Minnesota’s U.S. district court judges are based only in the two Twin Cities courthouses.

Magnuson has “been a judge in St. Paul for his entire 40-year career, so that’s not unusual that he would want to have the case in St. Paul, where his chambers are,” Tunheim said. “Our obligation is to make sure that the trial can be held safely and in a fair manner for everyone concerned.”

Magnuson did not immediately respond to an e-mail request for comment Saturday.

“It sounds like there’s discretion in this case to move from St. Paul to Minneapolis,” St. Paul City Council President Amy Brendmoen said. “It is my hope that the judges shift the case to Hennepin County.”

Staff writer Andy Mannix contributed to this report.

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