Judge In Derek Chauvin Trial Has Reputation For Fairness, Control | WAMC

Judge In Derek Chauvin Trial Has Reputation For Fairness, Control

Mar 10, 2021
Originally published on March 10, 2021 11:43 pm

From behind plexiglass and a gray mask, the spotlight is on Peter Cahill.

He's the judge overseeing the murder trial in Minneapolis that the world is watching after last summers protests following the killing of George Floyd.

Derek Chauvin, the white former police officer on trial is accused of killing Floyd, a black man. The video of him pinning Floyd's neck to the ground for more than eight minutes reignited a racial justice movement that sparked demonstrations across the country and the world against police brutality and racial injustice.

In an unprecedented decision, Cahill has allowed cameras into the courtroom to broadcast the entire criminal trial live. In the midst of a global pandemic with courtroom space limited, he decided the "only way to vindicate the defendants' constitutional right to a public trial and the media's and public's constitutional rights of access to criminal trials is to allow audio and video coverage of the trial."

The historic decision was in line with what lawyers who know him call "classic Cahill." He's described as bold and decisive. He's presiding over this case as well as the separate cases against three other former police officers that were also in that video.

"He is very decisive. He applies the law fairly," said Michael Colich, a criminal defense attorney. Cahill worked at his firm from 1987 to 1993, and they remain friends. "He's not going to be intimidated. And you're going to see that as the trial goes on, he'll control the courtroom. He'll let the lawyers do their jobs, but he will be in control."

Glimpses of the tight courtroom he runs are already showing.

One example was Tuesday in an exchange with co-prosecutor Sundeep Iyer, speaking over zoom. At one point Iyer refers to Chauvin without "Mr."

"Mr Iyer. Mr. Iyer. We refer to everyone by title, so It's Mr. Chauvin, please," Cahill said, reprimanding the attorney.

"Oh, my apologies your honor," Iyer responds.

On the second day of jury selection and third day of pre-trial motions, Cahill has at times sided with the defense and at other times with the state.

His long resume boasts both time as a prosecutor and a defense attorney. He served as top advisor to Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Mn.) when she was the Hennepin County Attorney. In 2007, he was appointed to the bench by Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty.

Jury selection is the first major hurdle. The question is how to seat a fair jury in such a notorious case.

Already the state is upset with one of Cahill's decisions: moving forward with jury selection. It argues the judge shouldn't be proceeding when a question remains around a lesser third-degree murder charge against Chauvin. He is already facing a second-degree unintentional murder charge and second-degree manslaughter charge.

On Friday, the Minnesota Court of Appeals issued a decision that Cahill erred when he decided not to reinstate the lesser charge. The state argues that means Cahill is required to stop jury selection and other substantive processes until the appeals process is resolved in the higher court and it's asked the appellate court to intervene to stop Cahill.

Cahill disagreed.

"Unless the court of appeals tells me otherwise, we're going to keep moving," he said in court prior to the start of jury selection.

Other judges might have pushed the brakes out of caution in such a publicly scrutinized case.

Cahill has been the judge in other highly publicized cases. In 2019, he sentenced a man who plead guilty to shooting a school bus driver to seven years in prison.

And in 2015 he dismissed charges against protest organizers who planned a Black Lives Matter demonstration at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., while keeping trespassing charges against some individual demonstrators.

"He was always cordial and respectful, and I felt that he was fair in terms of how he handled that particular case," said Nekima Levy Armstrong, one of the organizers who was charged with eight misdemeanors. She's also a lawyer.

She said Cahill didn't fall for tactics by prosecutors to paint peaceful demonstrators as lawbreakers. But this case is much more fraught. No police officer has been convicted in Minnesota for the killing of a Black person.

"I guess my hope is for fairness in terms of how he decides this particular case," she said.

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