Derek Chauvin Case Update: Audio and Video Coverage
On November 4, 2020, Judge Cahill of the Hennepin County District Court ordered that the trial of Derek Chauvin commencing on March 8, 2021 may be recorded, broadcasted, and live streamed on audio and video. Derek Chauvin is the former Minneapolis police officer who is currently facing felony charges in connection with the killing of George Floyd.
The state of Minnesota has requested that Judge Cahill reconsider his order allowing audio and video coverage of the trial. A request for reconsideration requires asking the judge to change their mind on something they have already ruled on. Requests for reconsideration are typically denied. The Court must consider the various factors such as the notoriety of the case, the First Amendment, the Sixth Amendment, and public health concerns stemming from COVID-19 when making its decision.
Among other rights, the Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the right to a public trial. The state noted there is no Sixth Amendment guarantee of a live-streamed trial, arguing that as long as there is no "true closure" of the courtroom, there will be no Sixth Amendment violation. The State contends that the First Amendment does not require access for every member of the media or public. The courts can control the time, place, and manner of the media's access.
Given social-distancing and limited attendance requirements because of COVID-19, the courts may impose restrictions on public access. The state asserts that "true closure" can be avoided by playing the trial over a closed-circuit television in overflow rooms. This would allow a limited number of media and members of the public to observe the trial, satisfying the First and Sixth Amendments’ requirements, while also addressing proper COVID-19 guidelines. Lastly, Minnesota argues that allowing audio and video recordings of those testifying is problematic, as they believe those testifying will likely be affected by the fear of unwanted notoriety or trauma associated with the broadcasting of their testimony.
On December 14, 2020, a coalition of media companies filed opposition to the state's motion to reconsider the order allowing audio and video coverage of the trial. The companies noted the unprecedented nature of this case, a high profile criminal case that gave rise to nationwide social justice movements during a global pandemic. The companies argue that if the Court is going to close the courtroom because of COVID-19, then the First Amendment requires expansive audio-visual coverage. They also contend that a right to attend criminal trials is implicit in First Amendment. Therefore, it must be determined what measures the Court can take to preserve the guarantees of the First and Sixth Amendments during a pandemic.
The media companies did not argue that the First Amendment always requires a court to provide access to every member of the media nor that the First Amendment, under normal circumstances, requires that the media is allowed to use audio-visual equipment to cover trials. Instead, the media companies argued that the First Amendment is a right of meaningful access and the courts must "take every reasonable measure to accommodate public attendance."
According to the media companies, the state's position of sending a closed-circuit video feed to an overflow room would be inadequate. From past experiences with the closed-circuit feed, reporters noted that the video on the television was static. Jurors and those in the gallery were not visible from the vantage point of the video camera. Even those in the screen were far enough away from the camera to make it difficult to see who was present and caused reporters to miss certain details such as facial expressions. The audio was also insufficient, and would lag behind the video. Those speaking also often failed to speak into the microphones.
The media companies believe there is no substitute for being in the courtroom itself. Only those sitting in the actual courtroom can simultaneously observe the defendants, attorneys, the families of the defendants and the victim, the witnesses, the jurors, and the judge. A physical presence allows journalists to make reliable reports regarding not only what is said but how it was said, and they are able to document how people acted and reacted.
The media companies then addressed their concerns of witness privacy and safety, and the state only gave a generalized argument in response. The state failed to identify a single witness who had expressed any concern about testifying in front of a camera. The media companies noted a handful of witnesses to George Floyd's death have already been interviewed by media outlets, both on audio and video.
Finally, the media companies discussed the impact of cameras in the courtroom on testimony. The companies use state of the art equipment and highly trained professionals. The cameras are silent, and the microphones are the size of pencil erasers. Many judges and litigants have stated that they "forgot" the cameras were present. The media companies believe their presence will not negatively impact the trial.
What the Motion Denial Means for the Case
On December 18, 2020, Judge Cahill, who is presiding over the case, denied the state’s request for reconsideration. Judge Cahill reasoned that the unique circumstances of the case necessitate the unique step of allowing audio and video coverage of the trial. He explained that due to social distancing requirements and despite using one of the county’s largest courtrooms, there would only be one chair that was not being used by a trial participant. He reasoned that this did not provide the public meaningful access to the trial. Judge Cahill also pointed out that the use of overflow courtrooms would not be sufficient, consistent with the media coalition's argument. As a result, the trial will be broadcast and live-streamed unless something changes between now and March 8, 2021.
If you have further questions regarding how felonies are charged and prosecuted in Minnesota, contact a skilled attorney at the BK Law Group today.