Keith Ellison took over the Minnesota attorney general's office last year vowing to spend more time helping state attorneys try complex cases. He also helped lead a yearlong study into the root causes of deadly police encounters — like the one that took George Floyd's life in Minneapolis last week.
The two agendas converged Sunday when Gov. Tim Walz asked Ellison to take over the prosecution of Derek Chauvin, a fired white officer accused of choking Floyd, an unarmed black man, with a knee to his neck. Now, one of the nation's loudest civil rights voices is at the center of its most intense police brutality case in decades.
The move came after six days of protests over Floyd's death, including demands for Chauvin's immediate arrest and prosecution. Among the protest targets was Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who filed the murder charges after five days. But Floyd's family and some prominent supporters, including members of the Minneapolis City Council, wanted a change. After several days of deliberation, Walz announced Sunday that Ellison, a former defense lawyer and congressman, would take over the case.
If there was political pressure in the high-profile case, state Sen. Jeff Hayden, a Minneapolis Democrat who represents the area where Floyd was killed, said it came "directly from the constituents." He said some members of the community have lost faith in Freeman's office, whose record of prosecuting police officers comes down to the recent conviction of Mohamed Noor, a black officer in the 2017 shooting of a white woman who had called 911 for help. Many protesters also were outraged that Freeman didn't bring more serious murder charges against Chauvin — or bring any charges so far against the other three officers involved in Floyd's arrest.
"I know Mike very well; I don't think he's a bad person," said Hayden, who wants police reform to be a priority when the Legislature returns this month for a special session. "But I think he's very much out of touch with the community that he serves. I think you saw that play out in his news conference when he, in a very boisterous and braggadocious way, argued that he is the only person to put a cop in jail — and that cop happened to be a person of African descent."
Freeman's only statement since the unusual step of putting Ellison in charge has been that he had asked for Ellison's help. "There have been recent developments in the facts of the case where the help and expertise of the attorney general would be valuable," Freeman said.
A spokesperson for Freeman's office referred questions Monday to the Attorney General's Office. An attorney for Chauvin also declined to comment Monday.
The case surrounding Floyd also has highlighted the work Ellison and Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington have led over the past year with a task force on police brutality. Hayden and other DFL lawmakers are now pressing for a special session of the Minnesota Legislature to take up the panel's recommendations, which had been shelved during the Legislature's regular session.
The 16-member group drew on law enforcement and community leaders — including Clarence Castile, whose nephew Philando Castile was killed during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights in 2016. Freeman at one point anchored a panel with Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, and both voiced a willingness to see the attorney general create a special prosecutor unit to handle police brutality cases.
Expanding the attorney general's footprint in criminal law was an early priority for Ellison, said Richard Allyn, a Minneapolis attorney and former supervisor who helped manage Ellison's transition into the office.
Ellison is not expected to try Chauvin personally. But Allyn and Hayden both pointed to his extensive litigation experience as a defense attorney in Minneapolis before his political career.
"He is probably the best qualified AG that I've seen in Minnesota history in terms of being able to analyze criminal law issues, prosecution issues, defense issues — because he did it so long at the Legal Rights Center," Allyn said.
Peter Wold, an attorney who represented Noor, the fired officer convicted in the 2017 killing of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, called Ellison's appointment rare. But he added he was surprised it hadn't happened sooner.
"Certainly in Minnesota it is unusual, but I don't think it should be," Wold said. "The County Attorney's Office is dealing with their own police force basically, or a police force they need to rely on from time to time. And I'm surprised it hasn't happened more often."
But some activists say Walz's move doesn't go far enough. Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality, helped lead a protest outside Walz's residence on Monday to urge the governor to appoint a "special prosecutor not affiliated with the Hennepin County prosecutor's office or the Attorney General's Office because we have no faith in these agencies to vigorously prosecute police officers given their past failures."
One of the state's top Republicans also is opposed. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said he favors leaving prosecutions in the hands of county attorneys. He said he's "particularly opposed" to Ellison taking over the case, citing a past photo of Ellison with a book about far-left "Antifa" activists who often engage in violent confrontations with neo-Nazis. Ellison on Sunday dismissed the photo as "a complete diversion."
Hayden argued that Ellison was uniquely qualified. "He has always been fighting, even before he was admitted to the bar. Even before he graduated. He was the young spokesperson [against] police brutality," Hayden said.
Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755