ST. PAUL — Throughout March, the nation’s eyes have been fixed on a courtroom in downtown Minneapolis, where the state of Minnesota is seeking a murder conviction against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd in May 2020.
Sitting at the head of that courtroom is Judge Peter Cahill, attempting to maintain a fair trial that the entire American public is able to watch live.
Floyd’s death has reinvigorated a racial reckoning across the country and around the world. While Chauvin’s fate will be in the hands of a jury of 12 peers from Hennepin County, Cahill is also tasked to manage a trial sure to determine the American public’s views on the justice system, as a whole.
Retired judge for Minnesota Kevin Burke told Forum News Service that, upon hearing that Cahill was assigned to the Chauvin trial, his first thought was, “That was a good choice.” He said Cahill is “uniquely suited” to preside over the Chauvin case based on his law experience.
“He has served as a defense lawyer, both as a public defender and in private practice,” Burke said. “He’s tried very significant, high-visibility cases as a defense lawyer. He’s served as a prosecutor. And he’s been a judge long enough to be confident of his decision making, but not so overconfident to be a jerk.”
Burke was a colleague of Cahill’s in the state judicial branch since Cahill was appointed to his seat in 2007, until Burke retired in September 2020. Even before then, Burke said he knew Cahill well from both of their work in the Hennepin County court system.
Burke described Cahill’s personality as “very friendly” with “a good sense of humor” — values that he said he thinks Cahill has brought with him to the bench. Citing his approachability with young law students, Burke has regularly invited Cahill to guest lecture to his students at the University of St. Thomas law school. Burke himself has even taught one of Cahill’s sons, who he described as “the most likeable person on the planet.”
“I think he gets that from his mom and dad,” Burke said.
Throughout the course of describing Cahill’s demeanor in different scenarios over the years — on the bench, working with staffers, teaching law students, in casual conversation — Burke continued to point out Cahill’s modesty and approachability. When you talk to Cahill, Burke said, “he’s not a know-it-all.”
“If you look at his resume, he could have a pretty inflated ego and I don’t think that he does,” Burke said.
Background and experience
Cahill’s resume begins in 1984, when he graduated magna cum laude from the University of Minnesota’s Law School. From there, he worked for three years as an assistant public defender in Hennepin County before transitioning into private practice for 10 years.
In 1997, he returned to the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, where he eventually served as deputy county attorney under then-County Attorney Amy Klobuchar, now a U.S. senator.
Cahill's 10-year arc in the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office came to an end in 2007 when Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointed him to the state court bench.
“Pete has a tremendous combination of trial experience and leadership in the administration of Hennepin County’s judicial system,” Pawlenty said at the time. “The contributions he will make as a district court judge will extend far beyond the courtroom itself.”
Decisions in Chauvin trial
Fast-forward 14 years, and Cahill is now presiding over one of the most high-profile court cases in recent memory. Early on in the Chauvin case, Cahill made a crucial and highly unusual decision that quite literally allows the case to “extend far beyond the courtroom itself”: Cahill is allowing the case to be broadcast.
Typically, cameras — or even audio recording devices — are prohibited from Minnesota courtrooms, and the public can only keep tabs on trials based on news reporters’ accounts from inside. But during a pandemic when fewer people than ever are allowed inside, Cahill, in a Nov. 4, 2020, order, offered the general public a rare front-row seat.
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As interested citizens watch the trial from home, jurors' faces will be hidden for their protection, witnesses and experts will rotate through their testimonies and attorneys may tag-team, but Cahill will be a constant presence. He is seen in his black robes, hair parted to the side and black, square-framed glasses sitting above his snugly fit gray face mask.
Throughout the jury selection process, Cahill was courteous to the prospective jurors, offering them hand sanitizer and waiting patiently as they took their time to thoughtfully answer rounds of questions from the probing attorneys. When addressing both the prosecutorial and defense teams, Cahill didn't appear to beat around the bush. When the two teams butted heads, Cahill served as the firm moderator, breaking up the scuffle.
Court resumes at 9 a.m. Central Monday, March 29, with opening statements.
In his November order, Cahill wrote that the constitutional right to public trial "is for the benefit of the defendant, not the public"; public observers ensure that the defendant is not “unjustly condemned” in the courtroom. In addition, he wrote that both the press and general public hold a First Amendment right to access public trials.
He also wrote that while the media has a constitutional right to cover public trials, those rights are not without their limits.
“In the past, failures to restrict public and media access inside the courtrooms of high-profile trials resulted in media action that was so intrusive and disruptive that defendants’ rights to a fair trial were violated,” he wrote.
Burke said it was “absolutely the right decision” for Cahill to allow cameras, and said even before this trial, Cahill hasn’t been “afraid of the media.” But the intense news coverage of the case even before the trial began has created an obstacle course for Cahill and attorneys to navigate, sometimes leaving Cahill visibly frustrated.
“(Cahill has) tried very significant, high-visibility cases as a defense lawyer. He’s served as a prosecutor. And he’s been a judge long enough to be confident of his decision making, but not so overconfident to be a jerk.”
— Kevin Burke, retired judge for Minnesota
The jury, the media, the court
In the questionnaire used to help narrow down the trial’s jury pool, potential jurors were asked extensively about their media habits and knowledge of the case from news reports. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone, let alone a Minnesotan, without prior knowledge of the case, and Cahill and both legal teams were forced to consider whether any of the jurors had too much prior knowledge and a preconceived judgement in their mind before opening arguments even began.
That minefield only becomes more difficult to navigate as news coverage of the trial ramps up. Just days into the jury selection process, the city of Minneapolis announced a $27 million civil settlement to the Floyd family, the largest pre-trial wrongful death settlement in U.S. history.
In court, Cahill said the timing of the settlement was “unfortunate,” and ultimately dismissed two previously seated jurors who heard of the settlement and said it tainted their view of the criminal case. On March 18, as transcripts of a news conference held by city officials about the settlement were entered in the court record, Cahill grew visibly frustrated by the publicity and its ability to seep into his courtroom.
“I’m not going to talk about this second press conference,” he said with his face half-concealed by his mask. “I asked Minneapolis to stop talking about it. They keep talking about it. We keep talking about it. Everybody, just stop talking about it.”
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The trial broadcast and intense media coverage has brought on a host of comparisons between Chauvin’s trial and the famously televised trial of O.J. Simpson in 1995, which grabbed the collective attention of the public and invited a media frenzy.
Also comparable to Simpson’s trial is the Chauvin trial’s potential to rock the public’s perception of the justice system and its fairness. After Simpson’s trial, Burke said many Americans came away critical of the presiding judge, Lance Ito. But Burke doesn’t anticipate the court of public opinion coming away with the same concerns over Cahill when the jury reaches its verdict.
“I think what’s going to happen when the trial is over is that people are going to say that the community and the defendant got a fair trial before Pete Cahill,” Burke said. “We now know enough about how Pete has handled the courtroom, handled the media (...) that people are going to come away confident that the justice system did the right thing, whatever that result may be.”
Judge Peter Cahill, at a glance
- Education: J.D., magna cum laude, University of Minnesota Law School, 1984; B.A., University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts, 1981
- Career: Hennepin County Attorney's Office, 1997-2007; private practice, 1987-97; Hennepin County Public Defender's Office, 1984-87
- Family: Wife and four adult-age children
Contact Sarah Mearhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org or 610-790-4992.