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Could Remarks from Public Officials on Chauvin Trial Be Grounds for Appeal?

Law and Justice concept. Mallet of the judge, books, scales of justice.
By Laura Temme, Esq. on April 21, 2021 10:53 AM

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty Tuesday on all charges relating to George Floyd's death, including murder. But while this chapter of the legal process is over, this likely isn't the last we've heard from the former cop's defense.

Chauvin's defense team moved for a mistrial Monday before jury deliberations started. They argued that recent publicity relating to the case threatened the neutrality of the jury process. Judge Peter Cahill dismissed the defense's motion – but indicated that a member of Congress might have handed them a gift they could use on appeal.

"I'll give you that Congresswoman Waters may have given you something on appeal that may result in this whole trial being overturned," Judge Cahill told lead defense attorney Eric Nelson.

Judge Points to Statements Made at MN Protests

Judge Cahill was referring to statements made by California Congresswoman Maxine Waters over the weekend. Rep. Waters made appearances at protests in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, relating to Chauvin's trial and the recent shooting of Daunte Wright.

"We're looking for a guilty verdict," Waters told CNN reporters. "If that does not happen, then we know that we've got to not only stay in the street, but we have to fight for justice."

When asked what protestors should do if Chauvin were acquitted, Rep. Waters said, "We've got to get more active, we've got to get more confrontational, we've got to make sure that they know we mean business."

The situation brings up a question that has plagued the courts for more than two hundred years: Can we guarantee a "fair" trial in cases that get a lot of publicity?

Can High-Profile Defendants Get a Fair Trial?

High-profile criminal trials, by their very nature, pit two important constitutional rights against each other. On the one hand, you have the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a trial by an "impartial jury." On the other, the rights of a free press under the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court has grappled with this issue for almost as long as the Court has existed. Presiding over Aaron Burr's trial for treason in 1807, Chief Justice John Marshall remarked that it would be foolish to expect jurors to come into a trial with absolutely no opinions on the case. Burr's trial was called "the greatest spectacle in the history of the republic," with thousands of people flocking to Richmond, Virginia, to watch the proceedings.

More than 150 years later, the Court held that national news coverage of a defendant's previous crimes did not violate their right to a fair trial. The defendant, "Murph the Surf," was infamous both for his involvement in a 1964 jewel heist and his indictment in the Whiskey Creek Murders.

Under Murphy, a juror's exposure to information about the defendant's prior convictions or news accounts of the crime does not alone disqualify them from the case. To overturn a conviction, the defendant would have to show an individual juror, or the overall community, was so heavily influenced by pretrial publicity that there's no way they could get a fair trial.

Jurors in Florida v. Chandler were instructed not to watch or read anything about the case in the media. When the case reached the Supreme Court in 1981, the Court acknowledged that "any criminal case that generates a great deal of publicity presents some risks" that the defendant's right to a fair trial will be compromised. However, the justices concluded that a new trial is only warranted if a defendant can show media coverage of their trial compromised the jury's ability to judge them fairly.

Jurors in Chauvin Trial Told, "Don't Watch the News"

In Chauvin's case, the prosecution argued against "muddying the record with vague statements" and that the jury's instructions were enough. At the end of each day of testimony, Judge Cahill told jurors to "have a good night and don't watch the news."

But concern over statements from public officials is undoubtedly warranted. President Joe Biden, for example, told reporters Tuesday that he purposefully waited until after the jury was sequestered to call George Floyd's family and express his feelings on the case.

Judge Cahill agreed with the prosecution but went on to note, "I've been saying from the beginning, I wish elected officials would stop talking about this case - especially in a way that is disrespectful to the rule of law and the judicial branch and our function."

It's almost guaranteed that the defense will appeal in cases like Chauvin's. And while precedent indicates they're in for an uphill battle, the case remains an important one to watch.

Related Resources

Podcast: Making Sense of Qualified Immunity (FindLaw's "Don't Judge Me")

Could Scott Peterson Get a New Trial? (FindLaw's Greedy Associates)

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