Minnesota's AG, a Detroit native, says he knew Floyd video wasn't enough to get conviction

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Although the video of George Floyd's death with a knee on his neck outraged the world, Keith Ellison knew it wouldn't be enough to convince a jury to send Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin to prison.

Ellison, a Detroit native and Minnesota's attorney general since 2019, was tasked with a case that catapulted his office into the national spotlight as Floyd's death sparked protests across the globe.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison seen at the Minnesota State Capitol building on Thursday. Ellison said he became a special prosecutor in the George Floyd criminal case understanding that the tape alone was unlikely to gain a jury conviction against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

"I never believed the tape was going to be sufficient to obtain a conviction," Ellison said of the Chauvin case in which he assembled a team of special prosecutors to find witnesses and medical experts. "We just couldn't play a video and expect a jury to come back with a guilty verdict. We really needed to put on a strong case, and we tried to do that."

In a wide-ranging interview with The Detroit News, the 57-year-old Democrat talked about how police officers in Minneapolis broke the traditional code of silence that helped seal a victory with the jury. He also discussed police reform legislation in Washington, D.C., and the administrative failures that allowed Chauvin to remain on the force and ultimately cost Floyd his life.

MoreDerek Chauvin gets 22½ years in prison | George Floyd's brother, attorney Ben Crump react to Derek Chauvin's sentence

Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill is scheduled to sentence Chauvin on Friday, two months after a jury found the officer guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Floyd was killed in May 2020 as bystanders watched and taped the incident in Minneapolis.

Chauvin faces from 12 to 40 years in prison on the second-degree murder charge alone, while the other charges could carry time in prison of up to 25 years for third-degree murder and 10 years for second-degree manslaughter.

The three other former officers who were on the scene near Floyd — Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane — are scheduled to go on trial in August. Ellison declined to address that case because the prosecution is ongoing.

About critics who decried his death but have criticized Floyd for not complying with police, Ellison said, "not complying is not a death sentence. Nor should it be. You can't execute somebody because they don't comply."

Other attorney generals, such as Kentucky's Daniel Cameron, who like Ellison is Black, declined to prosecute high-profile police shootings, such as the one involving Breonna Taylor in Louisville. Ellison said his case against Chauvin and three other officers who watched him kill Floyd with a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes had to happen.

After first seeing the Floyd video, Ellison said, "it did bring me back to the experiences that I saw first-hand and heard about in Detroit" when the city experienced rioting in the summer of 1967. Ellison grew up on Detroit's northwest side and got his undergraduate degree at Wayne State University before attending law school at the University of Minnesota.

"It's a problem that every single city in the country has," said Ellison of police abuse and overreach. "It's a Detroit problem, it's a Minneapolis problem, it's a Los Angeles problem, it's a Miami problem and a New York problem. And it's a Chicago problem. We've got to address these issues."

Ellison's older brother, Brian, lauded Keith as a "freedom fighter, period, who has always been the person to stand up for what is right." 

"He always had a personality or a disposition where he would stand up for the underdog and he would not back down from a fight," his brother said. "He was presented with a fight. I was born to be a pastor. Keith was born to do what he's doing. I don't know of another attorney who was born to stand up to police brutality and racial injustice."

How Ellison got involved

Several days after Floyd's death in May 2020, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz requested Ellison's office take over as special prosecutor. Ellison ended up bringing more serious charges against Chauvin than previously levied.

The move happened "because of the community expressing a lack of full confidence in local authorities to prosecute local police," Ellison said. "And I agreed because I'm not going to turn down the governor and the county attorney when they're asking us to play a role in furthering justice."

Ellison said he knew the risks, especially given he was prosecuting cops at a time when police were under attack but also heavily defended by their supporters. The case might backfire on him, he said.

"I did get advice to not be involved. Some people did tell me: 'You shouldn't be involved because if it goes bad, you're going to get the blame for it,'" said Ellison, who was Minnesota's first Black member of Congress and the first Muslim elected to Congress. "And I was like this is not the time to try to calculate political outcomes. This is the time to do what you can to help the community have some faith in a fair justice system."

When he chose the team, Ellison said he didn't want anyone who didn't feel comfortable prosecuting police officers. He needed a team of attorneys who could "relate to and connect with witnesses because this is extremely emotional."

When the trial concluded, reaction from police was mixed across the country: His office received both praise and condemnation.

Todd Flood, who was a special prosecutor in the Flint water crisis criminal cases under former Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, lauded Ellison and his team for bringing an impressive case that began and ended with the video.

The expert testimony for the prosecution overwhelmed the defense, presenting the jury evidence that Chauvin abused his authority, acted in front of minors and killed a victim who was vulnerable, Flood said.

"The prosecution definitely put in their proofs to show that not only were they going to convict him, but they were going to hit every extenuating circumstance so that his sentencing would be above the guidelines," he said. "That's impressive."

Ellison and his team, Flood said, didn't seem to worry about political pressure.

"When prosecutors bring charges, they're not to look at the political wind, they are to look at the facts and the law," he said. "And bravo to the prosecutor here. You take nothing for granted. This prosecutor, you can see they brought everything forward in a very professional manner and did it with a lot of skill."

Police made Ellison's case

Among the most important witnesses to testify for Ellison's team was Minneapolis police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who led an array of other police witnesses against Chauvin who criticized the police officer's actions that took Floyd's life.

"If there's a tight fraternity in the world, it is the police department," Ellison said. "And for these officers to say we don't want to be associated with that ..."

Fourteen officers, he said, wrote a letter denouncing Chauvin's actions, which Ellison said he took as a sign the blue wall of silence is changing. "We need police to professionalize to the point where if you're dishonoring the badge, you cannot expect protection from the profession," he said.

Without the police support and testimony, Ellison said, "it would have made the case more difficult because jurors have a tendency to reside all doubts in favor of the police." And that comes from decades of influence from TV shows and popular culture.

"We've been trained. We're conditioned" to support the police at all costs, he said. "One of the things that the police did for us is to signal that Chauvin, he's not standing with the police, he's standing on his own."

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison speaks to a co-worker he ran into at the Minnesota State Capitol building Thursday, June 24, 2021.

Policing needs reform

Ellison praised President Joe Biden for pushing for police reform measures such as the George Floyd Justice In Policing Act and castigated Senate Republicans for largely stalling it.

The proposed reform would lower the criminal intent standard to convict a law enforcement officer for misconduct in a federal prosecution and would limit qualified immunity as a defense in a private civil lawsuit against a police or prison officer. It also would empower the U.S. Department of Justice to issue subpoenas in investigations of police departments for a pattern of discrimination and create a national registry to compile data on complaints and records of police misconduct.

Ellison argued most police want to work in a department "where they can and do their job to promote public safety."

"I would say that there are problems with American policing systemically," he said. "I would also say there are a lot of individuals inside of American policing who want to have a reformed system of public safety."

The prosecution of Chauvin, he said, helps reform-minded officers do their jobs better and without fear of reprisal for rooting out corrupt cops. Ellison said he doesn't believe there are departments across the country full of Chauvins, but "I don't really subscribe to the one bad apple theory, either."

"We have a system of policing that needs reform," he said.

Biden has done things such as embrace the Floyd family, which Ellison said "demonstrates real leadership. It's hard to say whether he should be doing more, but he has stepped up. But until it's passed, I don't know if anyone is doing quite enough."

Firing Chauvin 

When the scheduled Friday sentencing happens, Ellison said he's not expecting Chauvin to show remorse. But he added that for the victims, "an apology, an acknowledgment makes all the difference."

The problem could have been avoided if action had been taken against Chauvin earlier, he said. Ellison said he was troubled by Chauvin's past conduct since 17 complaints of police misconduct were filed against him.

"If Chauvin would have been fired after his 10th or 12th complaint, he might be selling insurance, he might be hanging drywall. I don't know what he'd be doing," he said. "But he wouldn't be facing years in prison.

"You're not doing these violent officers a disservice by firing them. You might be saving them from a life of imprisonment. And you might be saving a family from the loss of a loved one.

"We've got to understand that not everybody's cut out for policing. It takes a special person to do it."


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Twitter: @leonardnfleming