The legal case resulting from the death of George Floyd will be one of the most contentious, closely watched legal proceedings in Minnesota history.
The most recent high-profile criminal case against a police officer in the state led to the 2019 third-degree murder conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, who is black, in the death of Justine Damond, who was white. It was believed to be the first time in state history that a police officer was convicted of murder for an on-duty killing.
Gov. Tim Walz, drawing on his statutory authority, has requested that state Attorney General Keith Ellison take over the case against former officer Derek Chauvin. Fired shortly after the incident that cost Floyd his life, Chauvin was initially charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter by Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who prosecuted Noor.
Walz’s decision was unusual. While it has not been uncommon in the past for smaller county attorney’s offices to seek state assistance on complex cases, it is rare for a governor to make such a decision on his own. But there are extenuating circumstances that make this a sound and even necessary choice in the Floyd case. Restoring trust in the legal system among all Minnesotans is critical.
Floyd’s family requested that Ellison take the case as a way to instill confidence in the outcome. Ten House members of the Minneapolis delegation sent a letter to Walz asking for Ellison to take over as well. The 10, all Democrats, stated bluntly that their constituents, “especially constituents of color, have lost faith in the ability of [Freeman] to fairly and impartially investigate and prosecute these cases.” They cited a news conference in which Freeman appeared to suggest there was unseen evidence that could exonerate Chauvin and the other three officers involved in the arrest.
That, the letter writers said, “further ruptured that trust.” Ellison, they said, “has earned the goodwill of Minneapolis residents through years of service to the city. ... It is imperative to signal ... that the authorities are treating this case with the special attention it deserves.”
But the reasons for Ellison’s appointment go beyond a symbolic gesture or even his decadeslong reputation in the city and communities of color. Ellison is steeped in civil rights issues, began his career litigating civil rights cases and led the Legal Rights Center of Minneapolis for five years as executive director. That experience will be necessary. Every facet of this case will be scrutinized here, across the country and beyond.
Already, conflicting autopsy reports — one from the Hennepin County medical examiner and another by doctors hired by the Floyd family — have contributed to the tension.
This is a time to make every effort to address the concerns of an aggrieved community forthrightly. That starts with a prosecution team that instills trust. Minnesotans should also welcome the state Human Rights Department’s decision to launch a long overdue investigation into Minneapolis Police Department practices. The proposal to make police reform a cornerstone of any special legislative session is also a good one.
These are beginnings that should give all Minnesotans more confidence that the law works for everyone, regardless of the color of their skin.