Several days after jurors returned full convictions against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the prosecutors who pieced together the case against him say they have refrained from celebrating their win and struggle to sleep a full night.
While there were congratulations in the immediate aftermath of last Tuesday's three guilty verdicts, the weight of the case loomed over the team that spent nearly a year poring through evidence and stitching together a careful attack on Chauvin's claims that he followed his training as he knelt on George Floyd's neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds last May.
"It's not a cause for celebration," Attorney General Keith Ellison said of Chauvin's conviction. "It's sad, very sad. One man's dead and another man's going to prison for a long time."
"It's a tragedy, and there really are no winners in a tragedy," said Special Assistant Attorney General Jerry Blackwell, who played a key role by delivering the state's opening statement, questioning witnesses and giving the rebuttal closing argument.
In four months they expect to be back in court trying Chauvin's three former colleagues — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — in one trial on charges of aiding and abetting Floyd's murder. Chauvin is scheduled for sentencing June 16.
The Attorney General's Office led the prosecution with assistance from the Hennepin County Attorney's Office. Ellison brought together several high-profile outside attorneys, including Blackwell, to work with prosecutors from both offices to try Chauvin for second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Ellison, Blackwell and Special Assistant Attorneys General Lola Velazquez-Aguilu and Steve Schleicher, also outside attorneys, sat down for a recent interview to discuss how the team prepared for and executed the six-week trial that was livestreamed and watched around the world.
"I asked these guys when we got here, 'Are you sleeping yet?' and for all of us the answer is no, we're not sleeping yet," said Velazquez-Aguilu.
A team of about 13 attorneys, 10 from outside the attorney general's office and some from as far away as Washington D.C., were assigned to committees covering different topics, including law enforcement and policing; medical issues and causation of death; and "themes" and "the art of presentation," among others. Some additional attorneys from Ellison's office provided part-time assistance. All outside contributors worked for free, according to Ellison's office.
The key to a successful operation, Ellison said, was to assign attorneys as leaders in one committee and followers in others to empower everyone to contribute. Blackwell and Schleicher said Ellison's guidance, weekly Zoom meetings, organized groups and clearly outlined tasks and purposes eased the process.
"It was not a pirate ship," said Schleicher, who focused on policing and questioned several witnesses at trial. "It was a warship, and it was ready to go."
"Everybody was willing to take out the trash, to literally do anything large or small," said Velazquez-Aguilu, who focused on medical issues, preparing experts and outlining questions behind the scenes. "At no time did I see anyone with a hint of ego say, 'Well, I'm too important to do this thing.' "
But the path wasn't always smooth. Ellison has said he assembled a team of "Michael Jordans" — star attorneys used to calling the shots now suddenly thrust into a massive group project coordinated over Zoom because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some attorneys met each other for the first time in person six months after their collaboration began.
"There were times it felt like trying to mix oil, water and a brick," Blackwell said, prompting laughter from the others. "You take deep breaths and you keep working at it. Everyone was committed to finding the best way to win. We understood we couldn't take anything for granted. These cases are difficult."
Blackwell was credited for crafting the mantra, "You can believe your eyes," which was introduced in his opening statement on March 29 and repeated several times in Schleicher's closing argument on April 19. He said he intentionally delivered an even-keeled opening statement centered on reason and logic instead of emotion so the evidence could speak for itself and to avoid playing into expectations that he would be overly emotional because he is Black.
"We felt that the most potent, powerful evidence there was the video and let people see it for themselves, judge it for themselves, reach their own conclusions and be able to say to them, 'There's no optical illusion in this; you can believe your eyes,' " Blackwell said.
The video, taken by Darnella Frazier, then 17, became the theme, Ellison said. The prosecution structured its case around it by calling several bystanders at the scene to the witness stand in the first few days of trial, then calling several Minneapolis police officers who testified Chauvin used excessive force and lastly, reinforcing what the bystanders saw with medical experts who testified that Floyd died of asphyxiation, Ellison said.
"Even though the video was incredibly powerful, I always was thinking about how we need to present this case if we somehow didn't have the video," Ellison said. " … I thought we needed to try the case imagining we didn't have the video and that was important, because I was always mindful, 'Are we playing it too much? At what point do you desensitize?' "
Prosecutors argued that the video showed Floyd dying of asphyxia breath-by-breath as Chauvin knelt on his neck while Kueng and Lane knelt and held the rest of his body stomach-down in the street. Chauvin's attorney, Eric Nelson, argued that Floyd died from a cardiac arrest due to pre-existing heart disease and clogged arteries, among other health issues, and drug use.
Citing the pending cases against Chauvin's former colleagues, Ellison declined to comment about his office's position on Hennepin County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Andrew Baker's findings that Floyd died of "cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression."
When asked whether he had prior knowledge of the City of Minneapolis' record $27 million settlement with the Floyd family, Ellison said: "I don't believe I knew anything about it. I certainly didn't factor it in. I didn't have any authority over it. … Didn't care, didn't matter to me."
The settlement was announced at the end of the first week of jury selection, angering the defense and trial judge because of its possible prejudicial impact. Settlements typically are resolved after a case concludes. Nelson argued that the announcement could have biased several seated jurors and prospective jurors. Ultimately, two jurors who had been seated were dismissed when they said it had affected their objectivity.
The attorney general's handling of the prosecution diverged from past practices in which county attorneys reviewed cases in their own jurisdictions. Several metro county attorneys signed an agreement last year to defer officer-involved fatalities in their jurisdiction to an outside county until later this year or until state lawmakers approve forwarding all future cases to the attorney general.
Ellison said he won't usurp the authority of county attorneys, "but they know we're ready to help."
"We will be a player in this space," Ellison said. "Will we take all the cases? I doubt it. Will we take some of them? Yes, I'm sure we will. We're prepared to do it. We're building expertise."
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708