Derek Chauvin’s trial of George Floyd appears to be a match of a lone defense attorney battling with seemingly unlimited resources against a stacked prosecution by the Minnesota attorney general.
Attorney Eric Nelson stands with Chauvin and Amy Voss – who Nelson refers to as his “assistant” but is a licensed attorney – on one side of Judge Peter Cahill’s courtroom. A few yards away is a rotating crew of four prosecutors, including Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison.
Despite the gig, Nelson hardly works alone. Nelson, a private attorney with Halberg Criminal Defense law firm, has ample help from the Minneapolis Police and Peace Officers Association Legal Protection Fund.
MPPOA’s executive director Brian Peters said the group, Minnesota’s largest association of civil servants and unions, is paying up to a dozen other lawyers to handle the case behind the scenes. Nelson has support and lots of money for a process that is expected to take at least a month, Peters said.
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“You know the matchup,” said Peters. “The 12 lawyers on our side work very well together, so it’s not like Eric is doing this case alone.”
The legal fund carries the financial clout, including attorney salaries, though Chauvin was fired by Minneapolis police the day after Floyd’s death on May 25th. The release came hours after the police chief saw a viral video of Chauvin pushing his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes.
In response to Floyd’s death, protests and fiery riots broke out in Minneapolis and across the country over police brutality against black civilians.
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Chauvin could spend 10 to 15 years in prison for second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter if convicted as a first-time offender – although a maximum sentence for the heaviest charge includes a 40-year sentence.
“When you stare at a long sentence and fight for your freedom, you know you will find help wherever it is available,” said Thomas Needham, a Chicago attorney who has defended accused officers of wrongdoing. “Our system says he’s entitled to a defense and he’s entitled to the best defense he can afford.”
For some, including Peters, Chauvin owes such a robust defense – particularly from the MPPOA’s legal fund, which Chauvin contributed to during his 19-year police career as a member.
The American Civil Liberties Union agrees to some extent. It is worrying, however, that the appearance of a police organization paying to defend a sacked officer – something Peters said chauvin has been entitled to since he was on the job when Floyd died – sends the wrong message.
“Chauvin undoubtedly has a right to a rigorous defense,” said Somil Trivedi, senior lawyer for the ACLU criminal law reform project. But “I don’t think the union can credible discussions about meaningful reforms and then … defend Derek Chauvin’s behavior at the same time.
“Police unions have shown their cards and I hope people can see things like what they are doing in Derek Chauvin’s case and have a grain of salt about their views on reform.”
Needham argued that this was an unfair attitude.
“The idea that he’s getting fired and why they’re still defending him – that’s all wrong because work and management are two different sides,” Needham said. “So management decided he should be fired. But the unions don’t give up and sign the management’s decision. In a case like (Chauvins) they have to decide for themselves what to do with their resources.”
It’s “David versus Goliath”. Or is it?
Staff and funding for both sides were tense during the jury selection when Cahill – angry that another civil settlement for $ 27 million had been reached for the Floyd family – interrupted prosecutor Steve Schleicher in the middle of the verdict.
“How many lawyers … are working for the state in this case, Mr. Schleicher?” Asked Cahill. “Is it 10, 12?”
Schleicher replied: “I do not have this number, your honor, but I know that the police association, the union, finances the defendant’s defense.”
Cahill suggested that the number of attorneys on the state side makes it easier for the state to handle ancillary matters – such as handling security press conferences regarding court and settlement matters and filing affidavits or motions on them Ask.
“The fact is the state has a lot of lawyers on this case who can sit outside this courtroom and start grinding things up,” Cahill said. “Mr. Nelson doesn’t have … the same level of support.”
Actually, Nelson does.
A dozen lawyers help with case, investigation and litigation preparation. Peters said the MPPOA expects to spend more than $ 1 million on Chauvin’s case from the legal fund, paid by union-affiliated officials across the state.
The Legal Protection Fund can also be used by the three officers charged with aiding and abetting chauvin in Floyd’s death: Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao, who will be tried together in August.
“Whenever you deal with the state or the federal government as a defense attorney, it is David versus Goliath in every criminal case,” said Lane’s attorney Earl Gray. “They (the government) have all the power, they have all the money, they all have investigators. … In any criminal defense case, there is this aspect of being the outsider.”
Who works for the state?
Chauvin was originally charged by the Hennepin District Attorney’s Office before Governor Tim Walz ordered Ellison to take the case. Not all bills have been received, according to the Attorney General’s office, but as of Thursday, the attorney general’s payout was more than $ 112,572, excluding salaries. Some top-class private lawyers work for the public prosecutor on a voluntary basis.
Among them is Schleicher, who represented a large part of the state side in the selection of the jury. Formerly assistant to the US attorney, he is litigation and appeal attorney and partner at Maslon.
Lead Prosecutor Matthew Frank, chief of the Attorney General’s Criminal Division, has been with the office for 21 years. He worked as an assistant district attorney and as a public defender – so he knows both sides of the legal equation.
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Others are Jerry Blackwell, founding partner of Blackwell Burke. In addition to criminal work, he has led complex product liability, tort and trade disputes. Neal Katyal, partner in Hogan Lovells international law firm and former Acting Attorney General and former Assistant Attorney General of the United States; and Lola Velázquez-Aguilu, litigation and investigative advisor at Medtronic and former prosecutor with the US Attorney’s Office in Minnesota.
Who is defending Derek Chauvin?
Chauvin’s case was originally assigned to Tom Kelly, who successfully defended another Minnesota police officer, Jeronimo Yanez, on the death of Philando Castile.
The 32-year-old Castile was fatally shot in the driver’s seat of a car near the State Capitol in 2016. The shooting was captured on video and reached millions of viewers on social media. Yanez was acquitted in 2017, and the Castile family reached a $ 3 million settlement with the town of St. Anthony, where Yanez was employed.
Kelly’s number was called on the rotation at the MPPOA for Chauvin, but he was expected to retire soon, so Peters said the case went to Nelson.
The other attorneys who hold full-time positions but are available to Nelson are members of the MPPOA’s Legal Fund.
When news broke that Nelson was taking over the case, some focused on his experience in defending anyone accused of driving under the driver’s influence. Peters was quick to denounce this definition of Nelson.
“You don’t come on this panel to defend DWI cases. He has experience in multiple murder trials,” said Peters. “And to say he’s working on it on his own is wrong. He has a lot of support behind the scenes; maybe you don’t see it every day in court.”
Eric Ferkenhoff is the Midwest Criminal Justice reporter for the USA TODAY Network.