With just over a month before former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin goes on trial for the murder of George Floyd, Hennepin County authorities are wondering whether the pandemic will allow for a safe process.
Chauvin is set to be tried separately from three other now-former MPD officers who have been charged in connection to Floyd's May 25 death in south Minneapolis.
Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill separated the trials earlier this month due to "physical limitations" of the largest courtroom in the Hennepin County Government Center, which he said would make it "impossible to comply with COVID-19 physical restrictions."
Both the prosecution and defense are expected to have numerous lawyers and support personnel in the courtroom. On Tuesday, state prosecutors submitted an affidavit requesting Cahill to consider delaying the trial due to a public health threat.
Prosecutors also reached out to University of Minnesota epidemiologist Dr. Michael Ostersholm, who also submitted an affidavit saying March 2021 could be a difficult time in Minnesota because of COVID-19.
"I was somewhat surprised last week when the residing judge in the case requested that the prosecutors reach out to me to get my assessment of would the period in early to mid-March be a time when we would expect to see when the virus activity would be substantially reduced and they could have the trial in a more safe manner," explained Osterholm in an interview on WCCO Radio Wednesday morning.
Osterholm said the mutated viruses that are now spreading around the globe, particularly the B.1.1.7. strain that was first discovered in the United Kingdom and has been confirmed in Minnesota, are posing the potential for "major challenges" because they present "50 to 60 percent increased transmission."
"Right now we have that virus here in the United States and it is spreading at this point and it is very likely that by mid to end of February into March we could see major increase again in our transmission here in Minnesota as well around the country," Ostersholm said.
"I merely reflected the science of what we know back to the court. I didn't make a recommendation yes or no other than to say this is what the science says, and the science says March could be a really tough time."
Ostersholm warns of potential higher peak in March, beyond
Five cases of the B.1.1.7. variant were confirmed in Minnesota cases that were tested the final two weeks of December. Though none have been publicly confirmed by the Minnesota Department of Health since, health leaders believe the variant is circulating in the state.
In his affidavit, Osterholm said that based on current estimates, some individuals in the general population will be vaccinated starting late spring, but that approximately 50% of the U.S. population will be vaccinated by August, which he called a "conservative estimate."
You can read Osterholm's full affidavit here. But here are some key talking points:
"Even with rigorous enforcement of social distancing and mask protocols, by March 2021, Minnesota may substantially exceed the number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths reported during the most recent spike in November to December, when Minnesota averaged 6,000 to 7,000 reported cases per day, 1,500 to 1,800 hospitalizations per day, and 60 to 90 deaths per day.
"Researchers have found that, after the United Kingdom tightened its stay-at-home restrictions in late 2020, infections from the original coronavirus strain remained flat, but infections from the new variant increased about ten-fold every three weeks.
"If the same rate of increase holds in Minnesota, I anticipate that there could be more than 5,000 to 8,000 new cases of the new strain of coronavirus in Minnesota per day in March 2021, and substantially more than that by the end of March 2021. These estimates do not include cases attributable to the original COVID-19 strain, which would likely continue to exist.
"It could be extremely dangerous to hold a trial for Mr. Chauvin in March 2021. Doing so could have potentially catastrophic consequences for public health. This is so not simply because of the (relatively small) number of people who would be inside the courtroom, but also because of the large numbers of people likely to be convened outside the courtroom, including demonstrators."
Chauvin's trial is scheduled to begin Mar. 8 with jury selection, followed by opening statements beginning no later than Mar. 29. Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng will be tried together, beginning Aug. 23.
Osterholm, who is on the Biden Administration's coronavirus advisory panel, also recommended Cahill consider holding one single trial for all four former officers this summer rather than separate trials due to the fact that separating them results in more people indoors more often, which is the recipe for greater risk of COVID transmission.
Chauvin, who was captured on video kneeling on Floyd's neck for several minutes, is charged with unintentional second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Thao, Lane and Kueng are each charged with aiding and abetting Chauvin on the unintentional second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter charges.