By Chao Xiong
MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Friday that it would not intervene in the case against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is charged with killing George Floyd, and delay his trial from March until the summertime as prosecutors had requested.
Attorney General Keith Ellison’s Office filed an appeal in late January asking the Court of Appeals to review rulings issued by Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill that ordered Chauvin to be tried alone starting March 8 on charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter.
Prosecutors argued that the COVID-19 pandemic made it unsafe to hold Chauvin’s trial in March. They asked the Court of Appeals to hold a hearing so they could argue their case orally, or, to skip a hearing and immediately issue a “writ of prohibition” to stop the trial.
“The state has not established a basis for our review of the district court’s pretrial orders,” wrote Court of Appeals Presiding Judge Tracy Smith. “Because we conclude that these appeals must be dismissed, we express no opinion on the merits of the district court’s rulings.”
Smith wrote that the court rejected the appeal because prosecutors did not show that COVID-19 would have a “critical impact” on their ability to prosecute the case, the Court of Appeals has no “inherent authority” to intervene in the “interests of justice” and issuing a writ of prohibition is “an extreme remedy” limited to cases where the lower court has ” ‘exceeded its jurisdiction’ ” and no other options exist.
Cahill had ordered one trial for Chauvin and a second trial in August for his three former colleagues — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — because the county’s largest courtroom could not accommodate all four defendants at once due to COVID-19 safety protocols. Kueng, Lane and Thao are charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.
Cahill twice rejected prosecutors’ motions to delay the March trial and to hold one trial for all four defendants, who are out on bond, in the summer.
Such rulings are discretionary, the Court of Appeals ruled.
“We are not persuaded that these discretionary rulings present the type of legal issues that should be reviewed by way of a petition for a writ of prohibition [to delay proceedings], especially in light of the supreme court’s guidance about prosecution pretrial appeals being disfavored and a showing of critical impact being required to obtain appellate review,” Smith wrote. “Moreover, the state has not identified any case establishing that a petition for writ of prohibition is the ‘proper procedure’ for challenging a pretrial order.”
Smith acknowledged the importance of public health in light of the pandemic, but noted that the courts have implemented “significant, tested safeguards” that are in place as trials continue to be held.
The prosecution’s move was unusual, as the Court of Appeals is designed mainly to review complaints from defendants about the trial process after they have been convicted.
Cahill had also ordered the trial to be livestreamed because pandemic protocols would severely limit the number of people who could watch the trial in person.
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