Ellison’s book on the trial of the officer who killed George Floyd: ‘Our themes resonated’
ST. PAUL, Minnesota — Minnesota prosecutors were so worried a judge was moving the murder trial of former officer Derek Chauvin out of the city where he killed George Floyd that they conducted a mock trial in a rural red county dark to test their strategy, Attorney General Keith Ellison reveals in a new book.
It worked. Ellison was pleasantly surprised that even mock jurors in Stearns County, central Minnesota, would have convicted Chauvin and three co-defendants of manslaughter, and nearly all of them would have convicted of the main charge of second-degree murder. Two mock juries in Hennepin County, where the case ultimately remained, came back guilty on all counts.
”Break the Wheel: Ending the Cycle of Police Violence” will be published Tuesday by Twelve, an imprint of the Hachette Book Group, two days before the third anniversary of Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020. Chauvin, who is white, kneels on the black man’s neck for 9 1/2 minutes. Video from a bystander captured Floyd’s waning cries of “I can’t breathe”.
“Our themes resonated,” Ellison wrote. ”Several juries held that the officers had a duty – moral or legal – to render assistance to George Floyd. None were overly concerned about medication. Even the Stearns County jury thought Floyd’s drug history was irrelevant.
It is unclear whether Chauvin’s defense team also conducted a mock trial. His attorney, Eric Nelson, did not return a call seeking comment.
Ellison said he wrote the memoirs because he wanted to provide a guide for other prosecutors and to share the lessons his team had learned about the difficulty of convicting police officers.
The importance of selecting the jury well was one of the key lessons, Ellison says, but so was the value of obtaining testimony from witnesses who spoke as Chauvin kept a dying Floyd pinned to the sidewalk outside a corner store and, critically, got their cameras out. So was finding medical experts who could impress upon the jury that Floyd would not have died but for Chauvin’s actions.
”Many jurors often associated black victims with danger and criminality. Over the span of American history, juries have been part of the repeated trend across the country to acquit officers who shoot unarmed people, often black men,” Ellison wrote. number of officers who have been acquitted after killing unarmed citizens is impressive. .”
Ellison became a national figure in 2006 when he became Minnesota’s first Muslim and first black elected to Congress. The Democrat became the state’s attorney general in 2019. Criminal prosecutions in Minnesota generally fall to county prosecutors. But amid the unrest and racial tension following Floyd’s killing, Democratic Minnesota Governor Tim Walz called on Ellison to take the lead.
Ellison recounts in his book how he used his personal connections to assemble a diverse, high-level team of pro bono and staff lawyers to try the case.
Ultimately, Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill, who Ellison praises in the book, kept the trial in Minneapolis, although he tried Chauvin separately from the other three defendants. Ultimately, all four officers were convicted or pleaded guilty to state and federal charges.
Despite extensive pre-trial publicity, the court was able to elect a jury for Chauvin, which took three weeks. Ellison wrote that it was the most diverse jury he had ever assembled – six blacks and six whites. It credits Steve Schleicher, a former federal prosecutor in private practice, and jury consultant Christina Maranakis.
“It wasn’t just luck,” Ellison wrote. “I knew that if we convicted Chauvin, a lot of people would take an impressive jury selection job for granted.”
For prosecutors, Ellison said in an interview, he hopes what they take away from the book is that “tough cases like this can be won,” even if the tables are turned. In a normal case, he says, jurors of all colors tend to believe the police, which helps the prosecution. But it makes officers harder to convict, he said. And while jurors generally sympathize with victims, that’s not guaranteed in a police case where the defense brings the victim to justice.
For other readers, Ellison said he hopes ordinary citizens — like the bystanders who filmed the incident and had the courage to testify — can do extraordinary things.
“These people who were randomly chosen by fate on the corner of 38th and Chicago around 8 p.m. on Memorial Day 2020, they didn’t know George Floyd, but they saw a human being in pain,” Ellison said in the statement. ‘interview. They stopped and they said something. They couldn’t do much more than say something, but they pulled out their cameras and took pictures.
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