MINNEAPOLIS Sept 11 (Reuters) - A special prosecutor said in court on Friday that four former Minneapolis police officers "acted together" in causing the death of George Floyd in May, while defense lawyers strongly opposed the prosecution's bid for a joint trial.
The hearing before Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter Cahill focused on various motions in the criminal case arising from Floyd's death that led to protests in the United States and other countries against racism and police brutality.
It was the first time all four defendants — Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — appeared together since the May 25 death of Floyd, who was Black. Chauvin, who is white, knelt on his neck for about nine minutes.
After the hearing, Floyd's relatives and lawyers pushed back against the assertion made by defense attorneys in court filings that Floyd, who had fentanyl in his system, died of an overdose, rather than cardiopulmonary arrest, the official cause of death.
"The only overdose that killed George Floyd was an overdose of excessive force and racism by the Minneapolis Police Department," lawyer Ben Crump said outside the courthouse. "It is a blatant attempt to kill George Floyd a second time."
Chauvin, who faces the most serious charge of second-degree murder, was wearing a gray suit, dark shirt and tie, and blue surgical mask amid the coronavirus pandemic. He appeared thinner than on the bystander videos that showed the incident.
Neal Katyal, a special attorney for the state, said a joint trial was justified given that the evidence was similar for all four defendants and because separate trials would force relatives to repeatedly relive the trauma of Floyd's death.
"I have seen a lot in my life, and I can barely watch the videos," Katyal, a lawyer and the U.S. Justice Department's former acting solicitor general brought in to help the prosecution, said about the bystander videos of Chauvin pinning Floyd to the pavement.
"These defendants acted together, they were on the scene together, they were talking to each other during the nine minutes Floyd was on the ground," Katyal said, according to a media pool report.
All four former officers have opposed a motion by prosecutors to consolidate their cases into one trial.
Kueng, Lane and Thao have all been charged with aiding and abetting both second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter for not taking action to help Floyd. All four defendants have filed motions to dismiss the charges.
Robert Paule, an attorney for Thao, said combining the cases would force him to defend against the prosecution and navigate the potentially conflicting interests of the other defendants.
"I am not just dealing with prosecutors. I am dealing with three other attorneys who are defending their clients," Paule told the hearing. "You are bringing in a group of bobcats in a bag and letting them loose in a courtroom at all once."
The protests prompted by Floyd's death have been reignited in recent weeks by other incidents involving Black men and police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Rochester, New York.
More than 100 protesters gathered outside the Family Justice Center in Minneapolis, chanting "Black lives matter," "no justice, no peace" and "indict, convict, send those killer cops to jail."
Addressing the request by all four defendants to move their trials outside of Minneapolis due to concerns about pretrial publicity, the judge said he would like to send a questionnaire to potential jurors to find out whether they had seen pretrial media coverage and how they were affected by it.
Judge Cahill said he was planning for a trial of six weeks, including two weeks for jury selection.
(Reporting by Nick Pfosi in Minneapolis and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Steve Orlofsky/Will Dunham and Grant McCool)