In new book, Keith Ellison goes behind the scenes of Derek Chauvin prosecution
He wrote the book, he said, as a guide for the next police brutality case.
MINNEAPOLIS -- In a new book "Break the Wheel: Ending the Cycle of Police Violence," Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison pulls back the curtain on the massive effort behind the pandemic-era prosecution of ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd.
From the morning on the edge of his bed when he first saw the bystander video of Floyd's in-custody murder on Memorial Day 2020, Ellison takes the reader through the work of assembling the trial team, bringing in consultants to help with jury selection and finding witnesses — through to the verdict and aftermath.
As horrific as the video was for most, Ellison explains how the guilty verdict was far from certainty. He wrote the book, he said, as a guide for the next police brutality case.
"Tragically, this is probably going to happen again," he said in an interview. "These cases are not like your average criminal case. They're just not. They're very different so you need some resources to get a grip on that."
The trial in March and April 2021 was live streamed to the world, so the characters in the book will be familiar to those who tracked it. Ellison's recounting is even-handed and informative. He didn't use the book to settle scores and had mostly generous observations about others, including the defense attorneys for Chauvin and the other three officers.
A criminal defense lawyer before he became the first Muslim elected to Congress in 2006, Ellison said he's a note-taker, a habit he continued through the trial. In June 2022, he reviewed his notes, created an outline, then got up every morning at 5 a.m. to write for three hours. It took nine months.
He aimed to write five pages a day but the book was still overdue and bloated when he turned it in at 120,000 words. Editors whittled it to 70,000. While he was writing, Ellison also was seeking re-election. GOP nominee Jim Schultz portrayed Ellison as anti-cop and almost ousted him, losing by just 20,800 votes.
Ellison felt the pressure. "I knew that if equal justice was to prevail, I had to find a way to win," he wrote. "I simply could not allow the lesson to be that prosecuting a cop is political suicide."
When police are on trial, roles are reversed; they're on the defense instead of working with prosecutors. That's another reason Ellison said he wrote the book, to puncture the Blue Wall of Silence and send word that it's OK for police to testify against a colleague. He praised former Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo and Lt. Richard Zimmerman, head of the department's homicide unit, who testified against Chauvin.
Help from the outside
Ellison revealed critical help he got early on in the case from Barry Scheck, who came to fame as part of O.J. Simpson's successful murder defense team. Scheck told Ellison to focus on debunking the controversial medical-legal theory of excited delirium, which has been used successfully in the past to justify excessive police force.
He reached out to Jerry Blackwell, a friend and prominent trial attorney, for advice. The call ended with Blackwell, now a U.S. District Court judge, agreeing to be a special assistant attorney general.
Blackwell delivered the final indelible sentence at trial for the prosecution. "You were told, for example, that Mr. Floyd died because his heart was too big," Blackwell said. "The truth of the matter is that the reason George Floyd is dead is because Mr. Chauvin's heart was too small."
Initially, Blackwell tucked the line into the middle of his closing. Ellison said that when he heard it, he considered it a mic-drop line and urged Blackwell to use it as the punctuating finale.
The book also detailed his concerns with Hennepin County Medical Examiner Andrew Baker's testimony. In the summer of 2020, Baker said, that if Floyd "were found dead at home alone and with no other apparent cause, this could be acceptable to call an overdose."
Ellison called Baker's comment "a gratuitous, unnecessary unscientific statement and he had me scared to death."
To many, the comment was "just one of the first signs of the old pattern repeating itself: unarmed African-Americans being killed in custody while the system protected the officers from accountability."
Baker also said that he didn't believe the prone position was any more dangerous than other restraints and couldn't attribute the death to positional asphyxia.
Because of concerns about Baker's testimony, prosecutors sandwiched his appearance between other experts.
Ellison said he didn't sleep the night before Baker testified, worried he would go rogue and demolish the case against Chauvin. That didn't happen.
"For all the buildup and worry, things went well," Ellison said, adding that Baker stuck with his determination that Floyd had died by homicide.
The prosecution team was also worried the case might be moved out of Hennepin County so they conducted a mock trial with Stearns County residents. Ellison said the prosecution got a conviction during the staged event, but that didn't assuage concerns. "One thing doing a mock, you don't really know how the defense is going to act," he said in an interview.
Throughout the nearly 300-page book, Ellison shared his thoughts on a range of trial topics, including:
The video: Ellison credited his then-legislative director Carly Melin for helping understand the critical angles and impact. "I'm embarrassed to admit that I had heard Floyd say everything in those videos, but his calls for his mother didn't really stick. Carly helped me understand how significant it was."
Judge Peter Cahill: "The first thing anyone notices is his great smile. It's a smile that might make one think he is always an easy-going guy, slow to anger. They'd be wrong. Judge Cahill can go from zero to sixty in no time flat if you cross him, and you don't want to be the target of his wrath."
Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank: "He's a Sergeant Joe Friday 'just the facts ma'am' kind of fellow, but his seriousness belies his compassion."
Former President Donald Trump: "He communicates effectively because he employs themes. He's not eloquent, he's not sophisticated, and he's anything but poetic. Nevertheless, he is extremely thematic: 'Build a wall'; 'Mexico is going to pay for it'; 'no collusion'; 'witch hunt.' Trump's followers understand him because he speaks to their visceral fears and anxieties."
His concern about losing the case: "What worried me was whether Eric Nelson — Chauvin's defense counsel — could convince the jury that, while maybe Chauvin carried things too far in hindsight, it was reasonable for him to kneel on George Floyd in the moment."
The ex-officers: "None of the four officers seem to have any awareness about the extent of the damage they inflicted on the community's trust, even before Chauvin sank his knee into Floyd's neck."
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