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Minnesota's 1st Black Attorney General Led Prosecution In Chauvin Case


How did the prosecution prevail in the trial of Derek Chauvin? Keith Ellison, Minnesota's attorney general, oversaw the case. He had an excruciating video to work with, video of the death of George Floyd, which we should warn we will hear a bit of in this story. But even with the video, Ellison says he had doubts. Police officers on trial often have both the letter of the law and a lot of history on their side. Ellison told NPR's Leila Fadel how he conducted the case.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: It wasn't until the verdict was read that Attorney General Keith Ellison and the 13-member team his office put together could breathe a sigh of relief.

KEITH ELLISON: Until that moment, I was not sure that we were going to win.

FADEL: Despite the mountain of video evidence of Floyd losing his life under Chauvin's knee.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Get up and get in the car right.


FADEL: The heartbreaking bystander testimony.


DARNELLA FRAZIER: A man terrified, scared, begging for his life.

FADEL: The medical testimony.


MARTIN TOBIN: Mr. Floyd died from a low level of oxygen.

FADEL: The police chief testifying against his own. History, Ellison says, told him not to assume.

ELLISON: Because of Rodney King being beaten on video and the people who did it walk out, walk away; Walter Scott executed in South Carolina, the state jury hangs, doesn't convict the officers who did it; it takes four years for Jason Van Dyke to be held accountable for the murder of Laquan McDonald and very likely never was going to come to light, not to mention Philando Castile, not to mention Jamar Clark, not to mention so many other cases. Yeah. I - it's - when you're dealing with a police case, it's just different. It's just different. And so we threw everything we had into it.

FADEL: Now, Ellison says, this verdict may stand as a warning.

ELLISON: If you are a police officer who's inclined to beat on people and kill them and shoot them without legal right to do so, you may find the chief of police and many of your colleagues testifying against you.

FADEL: And maybe a new trend for the prosecution of police who use excessive force.

ELLISON: If it was a notorious murderer or some serial rapist, you would see the prosecutorial offices put everything they had into the case. We're going to expect that now in cases where there's excessive force and police are not operating according to, you know, the constitution and the law.

FADEL: He says he put the wider implications aside as his team prepped and then tried Chauvin.

ELLISON: I treated this case like a mechanic. It was like, we have to prove this case. There are elements to every crime. Where's the evidence for each one of them, right? And what are the experts we need? What are the witnesses that we need? What are the legal challenges that we're going to face? And I did not give myself the luxury of thinking about the bigger implications of this case.

FADEL: After the trial, Ellison made headlines saying the verdict wasn't justice. It was simply accountability. Justice, he says, comes from social transformation.

ELLISON: Look at Minnesota. We have some of the worst disparities in housing, education, criminal justice. Part of the way it stays in place is through policing. I mean, the bottom line is the police, you know, are the guardians of not just the law but also social norms. And if the social norm is some people are important and some people just don't matter, then the police are going to live that out, which is why we have to say Black lives matter. I believe a white George Floyd in the so-called nice part of town who also may have had an opioid problem who also may have unwittingly passed a bad $20 would have been treated dramatically differently. I don't claim that Derek Chauvin had racial animus in front of mind. I think he just did what society says you get to do to people like George Floyd. And I think that is the transformation we really need.

FADEL: Neal Katyal is a special prosecutor on the team that tried Chauvin. He was an acting solicitor general during the Obama administration, and he's argued many cases before the Supreme Court and worked under several attorneys general.

NEAL KATYAL: And I'm used to most of them basically giving me a lot of deference on, you know, the legal geek issues, so to speak, you know, all the kind of intricacies of legal motions. And Keith certainly listened to me, but he got into the weeds, down to asking me about footnotes and briefs.

FADEL: Katyal says there was an understanding that getting this case right was about correcting historic injustices.

KATYAL: It wasn't about his ego. It was just about winning. I think most attorneys general would have insisted on some speaking time in a trial like this - none of that. It was all about winning and doing justice.

FADEL: The theme of the prosecution's case was that Chauvin was an officer who betrayed his badge. But some observers say they worry about that strategy.

JUSTIN HANSFORD: They threw Chauvin under the bus basically to save the bus, which is the current status quo of policing.

FADEL: Justin Hansford is a law professor and director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University Law School.

HANSFORD: The fear in terms of broader impact of the trial is that there are some people say, well, look, we got the conviction, this is the way it's supposed to go. Why spend any effort changing things? Because we've now proven that we can have accountability.

FADEL: Ellison says the one goal was to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Chauvin was guilty on all three counts. To create systemic change, Leslie Redmond, a community organizer in Minneapolis and former head of the NAACP, says it's about electing attorneys who will throw resources at cases like these.

LESLIE REDMOND: People are starting to pay more attention to county attorney races, right? I think you've seen that happen nationally. And we've been pushing on it a lot in Minnesota. In addition to that, I do think we need better attorney generals all across the nation as well.

FADEL: Redmond was among the millions of people across the country last summer demanding accountability, pressuring elected officials like Keith Ellison.

ELLISON: The governor probably would not have felt the need to appoint me to prosecute the case against Derek Chauvin unless people were protesting in the street. Now, I'm hoping people don't break windows and burn stuff, but protesting and being out there strong, we absolutely need it. And in fact, I don't think you get anything without it.

FADEL: Outside Minneapolis, protesters are out again, demanding more severe charges against a police officer who killed another Black man in the midst of this trial. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Minneapolis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MANSUR BROWN'S "SERENE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.