MOORHEAD — Clay County Sheriff Mark Empting has this advice for court officials eyeing Moorhead and the Clay County Courthouse as a possible venue for a trial involving defendants in the killing of George Floyd: Keep looking.
Empting's worry is based on the possibility that the four defendants in the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last spring could stand trial together and a change-of-venue motion filed in Hennepin County District Court could result in the trial moving to a different county. Clay, Dakota and Stearns counties were mentioned in court papers as possibilities.
After reading about the potential change of venue in a media report, Empting said he sent an email to Clay County court officials Tuesday morning, Sept. 15, alerting them to the possibility Moorhead could be the site of one or more Hennepin County trials.
Clay County would be a poor location for such trials for several reasons, Empting said, noting the county probably couldn't provide the manpower or space they would require.
He added that the proximity of the courthouse to Robert Asp Elementary School, which is across the street from the courthouse, is a major concern.
The trial of the George Floyd defendants, Empting said, "is going to be a national media circus, and it would not be a very safe environment, I feel, for the students."
Such a trial and the potential demonstrations surrounding it would likely create a poor learning environment, according to Empting.
Four men face charges in the death of Floyd, including Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer who knelt on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes.
Chauvin is charged with one count each of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Three other former police officers, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao, are each charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.
Empting said it remains unclear whether a change of venue will be granted and whether the defendants will stand trial individually or together.
He said a consolidated trial would tax the space available in the Clay County Courthouse, and it is unknown what dangers the COVID-19 situation might pose if a trial is moved to Moorhead.
"I think it would be a tremendous nightmare with the amount of people this is going to bring in here," Empting said.
Moorhead Police Chief Shannon Monroe echoed Empting's worries, citing the proximity of the courthouse to an elementary school and the potential strain on the police department's resources.
Even during normal times, Monroe said, it can be challenging for the department to meet its daily call load. Moorhead police "would need a lot of assistance" if a trial was moved to Clay County, he added.
In asking for a change of venue, defense attorneys representing Thao said under the Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure, a change of venue may be granted if the court determines a fair and impartial trial cannot be had in the county in which the case is pending.
The attorneys also stated a change of venue must be granted where it appears likely an impartial jury cannot be obtained in the county in which the crime was committed.