The judge in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on Monday admonished politicians for making what he called irresponsible and disrespectful comments about the case as jurors were sent to deliberate on a case that has already rattled the country.
Judge Peter Cahill’s comments were sparked by Rep. Maxine Waters’s remarks over the weekend during a rally in Brooklyn Center, Minn., where she said that if Chauvin was found not guilty of murder in George Floyd’s death, protesters should stay on the streets, “get more active” and “get more confrontational.”
Republicans have highlighted the Democratic California congresswoman’s comments as potentially leading to violence, but they have faced accusations of hypocrisy over their lack of action over Trump’s frequent inflammatory comments or to members of their own party who have been accused of egging on violence.
The matter entered the courtroom after the jury headed off to begin their deliberations on Monday afternoon, following three weeks of testimony from dozens of witnesses.
Chauvin’s attorney Eric Nelson moved for a mistrial, objecting, among other things, to Waters’s statements, which he said had the effect of “threatening and intimidating the jury.” He added that the “pervasive” media coverage that the trial has received could have also influenced the 12 jurors (and two alternates) who will decide whether Chauvin is guilty of second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death.
Cahill conceded that Waters “may have given” the defense grounds “on appeal that may result in this whole trial being overturned.”
He saved his harshest words for elected officials that he felt were speaking about the case “in a manner that is disrespectful to the rule of law and to the judicial branch.”
“I think if they want to give their opinions, they should do so in a respectful and in a manner that is consistent with their oath to the Constitution, to respect a coequal branch of government,” he said.
“Their failure to do so, I think, is abhorrent.”
However unfortunate Cahill found the remarks, he said it did not “prejudice this jury,” adding that one congresswoman’s opinion “really doesn’t matter a whole lot anyway.” He denied the defense’s motion for mistrial.
According to civil rights attorney David Henderson, the defense has long argued that outside forces are influencing the jury and the verdict.
“But Cahill shut it down because in his view there will be outside forces and coverage of the trial and that there is no way to avoid it,” Henderson said. “And that there is no clear indication how it would improperly influence the jury’s deliberation.”
He added that Cahill’s comment about the appeal was “blurted out” more as frustration toward Waters and politicians.
Henderson said that if Chauvin is convicted, the defense probably will appeal the verdict on several arguments, one of them being Cahill’s refusal to grant a mistrial based on Waters’s comments.
In that case, he said, an appellate court would review Cahill’s decision and probably would deny the claim based on what is called an “abuse of discretion,” meaning it would defer to Cahill, based on the assumption that judges are in a better position to make decisions and have more knowledge about the case.
The verdict probably would not be overturned in that case, Henderson added.
Waters did not immediately respond for a request for comment, but the congresswoman told CNN that her reference to confrontation “was meant in the context of the civil rights movement’s nonviolent history,” and that “the whole civil rights movement is confrontation.”
When pressed by reporters on the judge’s comments that her remarks could be grounds for appeal, she said, “Oh no, no, they didn’t,” CNN reported.
Regardless of the legal implications on the case, Waters’s remarks prompted reactions from officials in both major political parties.
On Monday, while Republicans highlighted Waters’s comments as potentially leading to violence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., defended the congresswoman, saying she should not apologize for her comments because she was not inciting violence, but rather “talking about confrontation in the manner of the civil rights movement,” Pelosi said.
“I myself think we should take our lead from the George Floyd family,” she said. “They’ve handled this with great dignity, and no ambiguity or lack of – misinterpretation by the other side.”
“As outraged as we are by his death, let us be prayerful that the truth will prevail and will honor George Floyd’s memory,” Pelosi said in a statement released earlier marking the closing arguments in the trial.
Republicans have been critical of past comments from Waters, including when she urged people to confront Trump administration officials when they were spotted in public.
“If you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd, and you push back on them!” she said in 2018.
Waters has responded by saying she was encouraging peaceful protests and not violence.
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