The trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd was delayed until at least today as the judge contended with a last-minute order by a higher court to reconsider adding an additional murder charge.
The trial had been scheduled to begin yesterday with the screening of jurors to consider murder and manslaughter charges in a case seen as a referendum on police violence against black Americans.
Mr Chauvin appeared in court dressed in a navy blue suit and tie, a white shirt and a black face mask, jotting notes in a yellow legal pad on the table before him.
Judge Peter Cahill of the Hennepin County district court set aside three weeks for jury selection alone, mindful of the difficulties finding impartial Minneapolitans in a case that has convulsed a nation and in which an image of the victim – a selfie of Floyd faintly smiling – has become an international icon of racial justice.
But that was delayed by the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which ordered Judge Cahill to reconsider the prosecutors’ request to also reinstate a third charge, third-degree murder, over the defendant’s objections.
Eric Nelson, Mr Chauvin’s lead lawyer, told the court yesterday that Mr Chauvin would soon ask the Minnesota Supreme Court to overturn last Friday’s order, a process that could take weeks.
Prosecutors from the Minnesota attorney general’s office urged the court to delay jury selection until that issue was resolved.
“We’re not doing this to interfere, to slow this down, but it is a very important matter,” Matthew Frank, an assistant attorney general, told the court.
Prosecutors feared picking a jury when the number of charges was still unresolved could make it easier for Mr Chauvin to appeal a verdict later, Mr Frank said.
Judge Cahill declined. Prosecutors then said they would ask the Appeals Court to intervene to delay the trial. Judge Cahill suspended jury selection until at least today.
Mr Chauvin (44) is charged with second-degree murder, which carries a sentence of up to 40 years in prison, and manslaughter.
He was released from jail on a $1m bond last October and will be tried in a courtroom in the Hennepin County Government Centre, a tower in downtown Minneapolis now ringed with fencing and concrete barricades for fear of disruption by protesters.
Small groups of protesters gathered by the barricades at an adjoining park yesterday, some arriving with bouquets of flowers and signs daubed with optimistic slogans: “A change is coming”. A few volunteers set up tables, handing out donated coffee and doughnuts.
The courtroom has been adapted to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, and Judge Cahill has sharply limited attendance inside: the families of Mr Chauvin and Mr Floyd have each been allocated a single seat inside the courtroom.
Most reporters attending must watch a video stream in a building across the street.