Single attorney leading Chauvin’s defense differs from previous police cases

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In this screen grab from video, defense attorney Eric Nelson, left, defendant and former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, right, and Nelson's assistant Amy Voss, back, introduce themselves to jurors as Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill presides over jury selection in the trial of Chauvin Wednesday, March 17, 2021 at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn. Chauvin is charged in the May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd.

“He wears the ball all over,” said Joseph Daly, Professor Emeritus at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law and former Professor of Nelson. “It’s hard to carry that kind of burden when you’re the only trial attorney in the courtroom who does it all.”

In several recent public official murders in Minnesota, teams of attorneys have come to the defense of police officers and have processed their case through legal proceedings.

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Former St. Anthony Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez who shot Philando Castile killed three lawyers: Paul Engh, Earl Gray and Thomas Kelly.

In 2019, former MPD official Mohamed Noor was represented by Tom Plunkett and Peter Wold, who were both visible every day during the trial and took turns interrogating witnesses.

The Chauvin case is a remarkable departure from this norm.

Law enforcement officers in Minnesota have the option to contribute to a legal protection fund operated by the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association. The fund retains and pays 12 defense lawyers to represent police officers charged with work-related crimes.

MPPOA said it would take turns assigning attorneys. The organization wouldn’t answer specific questions about Chauvin’s case.

Full coverage of the Chauvin trial

Mary Moriarty, the former Hennepin County’s lead defense attorney, said it was common for public defense lawyers to try cases on their own, but in the chauvinist trial, this could be a strategy the defense is using on purpose.

“I think the perception that Eric Nelson is trying to create with the jury is one of the underdogs,” she said. “In that case, it may well be a strategy … that you are alone against the huge forces of government.”

Daly, who has been closely following the process, said he thought Nelson did his best in the circumstances.

“I think he’s very calm, cool and collected,” said Daly. “He’s paying close attention. He’s looking at the person he’s asking his questions to. He’s done all the necessary work to put this case together.”