Each day, Judge Peter Cahill warmly greets jurors before they listen to hours of emotional and often tedious medical testimony. He puts the jurors at ease while running a tight ship. Those qualities are part of the reason Hennepin County District Court Chief Judge Toddrick Barnette selected Cahill to preside over the trials of Derek Chauvin and three other officers charged in George Floyd’s death.
“This moment, it’s not too big for him,” Judge Barnette said. “He’s going to base his decision on the law. And that decision could be unpopular with the public. But it’s going to be a sound legal decision.”
Cahill has been on the bench since 2007. Court observers have noticed how Cahill has made rulings that allow the prosecution and the defense leeway to try their respective cases. Judge Barnette said Cahill can handle a high volume in his courtroom while sticking to the trial schedule he outlined in court records.
In the Chauvin case, there are hundreds of exhibits and hours and days of witness testimony. But Cahill also has a lighter side that has been on display in the courtroom. For instance, when a juror said he plans to get married on May 1 and attorneys noted the trial could run past that date, Cahill told the man “feel free to throw me under the bus with your fiancee.”
“He has a very good sense of humor. Some of it is about himself. So he doesn’t take himself too seriously,” Barnette said.
For all of Judge Cahill’s good humor, there have been moments when he was angry and let the lawyers, witnesses and others know it. For instance, prosecutor Steve Schleicher was on the receiving end of a tongue lashing when he suggested Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, should have had some documents prepared to file when he was in court all day during jury selection. Cahill noted there are more than 10 lawyers on the prosecution team and he didn’t want lawyers on either side criticizing the other’s performance.
Cahill also gave a stern warning to an off-duty firefighter not to argue with Nelson during questioning. The woman had witnessed part of the confrontation between George Floyd and police. That admonishment happened around the same time a PR representative for the teen who took the viral video of Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck was caught taking a photo of the girl speaking with Attorney General Keith Ellison in the hallway.
“We’re here to do a job. This is my job. This is what I’m going to do. And you have a job. This is what you’re going to do. And we’re going to manage this in a professional way. And we’re all going to get through this even with the spotlight on us,” Barnette said when describing how Cahill runs his courtroom.
Cahill has been both a prosecutor and a defense attorney. He worked in the Hennepin County Attorney’s office when Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) was the county attorney. Earlier in his career, he worked in the Hennepin Co. Public Defender’s Office and also worked in private practice.
“He was a prosecutor. He was a public defender. He is very conversant in criminal law, which is important. He has pretty good temperament,” said former Hennepin Co. Public Defender Mary Moriarty.
Moriarty has been in Cahill’s courtroom when cameras were not there.
“I think he’s done a really good job with the jurors,” Moriarty said.
Cahill is a husband and father to adult children, according to Judge Barnette. Barnette and Cahill have actually known each other for a number of years. Barnette recalled how Cahill interviewed him when he was a public defender and was asked to work for the county attorney’s office.
Judge Cahill has allowed cameras in the courtroom for gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Chauvin trial — a first in Minnesota’s history. Prosecutors had objected to having cameras in the courtroom while the defense supported the decision.
“I thought that it was important that the public have access to this trial, especially with all of the media attention that it received,” Barnette said. He added, “I like that a lot of the media outlets are covering it gavel-to-gavel. So I really like the fact that people aren’t just seeing bits and pieces unless they want to see bits and pieces.”
On a lighter note, Cahill is also a fan of rock music. The Washington Post reported during jury selection that Cahill left the courthouse one day with music blaring from his car. He gave the reporters and photographers the hang loose sign. Barnette said that week Cahill was listening to Ozzy Osbourne, the Rolling Stones, and AC/DC.
“He he loves his music. We park not too far from each other. So, yes, he loves his music coming in in the morning, that is for sure,” Barnette said.
[Image via Law&Crime Network]
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