Derek Chauvin’s trial in the death of George Floyd appears to be a match of a lone defense attorney battling a lawsuit stacked by the Minnesota attorney general’s office with seemingly limitless resources.
Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, stands alongside Chauvin and Amy Voss – whom Nelson describes as his “assistant” but is a licensed attorney – on one side of Judge Peter Cahill’s courtroom. A few yards away is a rotating team of four prosecutors, including Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison.
Despite appearances, Nelson hardly works solo. Nelson, a private attorney with Halberg Criminal Defense, receives extensive assistance from the Minneapolis Police and Peace Officers Association Legal Defense Fund.
The group, the largest federation of leaders and unions in Minnesota, pays up to a dozen other lawyers who work behind the scenes, according to MPPOA executive director Brian Peters. So Nelson has some help and a lot of money to spend on a trial that is expected to last at least a month, Peters said.
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“You know the game,” said Peters. “The 12 lawyers on our side work very well together, so it’s not like Eric is handling this case alone.”
The legal fund carries the financial weight, including lawyers’ salaries, despite Chauvin’s dismissal from the Minneapolis Police Department the day after Floyd died on May 25. The shooting came hours after the police chief saw the viral video of Chauvin pressing his knee against Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes.
The video sparked protests and riots in Minneapolis and across the country over police violence against black civilians. And, quickly, the video led to accusations against Chauvin.
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Now facing charges of second and third degree murder and second degree manslaughter, Chauvin could spend between 10 and 15 years in prison if found guilty for the first time – despite a maximum sentence for l most serious charge carrying a 40- year term.
“When you look at the barrel of a long prison sentence and fight for your freedom, you know you are going to bring help wherever it is available,” said Thomas Needham, a Chicago lawyer who has defended the accused police officers. misconduct. “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 strong defense – especially the MPPOA legal fund, to which Chauvin contributed as a member during his 19-year police career.
The ACLU agrees, to some extent.
But he fears that the emergence of a paying officer organization to defend a dismissed officer – something Peters said Chauvin was entitled to since he was at work when Floyd died – sends the wrong message.
“Chauvin certainly deserves a strong defense,” said Somil Trivedi, senior counsel for the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project. But, he said, “I don’t think the union can simultaneously bring credibility to discussions of meaningful reform and then push … to defend Derek Chauvin’s conduct.”
“The police unions have shown their cards, so I hope people can see things like what they are doing in the case of Derek Chauvin and take their views on reform with a grain of salt.”
Needham argued that this was an unfair take.
“The idea that he’s being fired and why are they still defending him – it’s all wrong because the unions and management are two different sides,” Needham said. “So the management decided that he should be fired. But the unions are not giving up and accepting the management’s decision. In a case like (Chauvin’s), they have to make their own decision on this. that they do with their resources. “
It’s “David versus Goliath”. Where is it?
Staffing and funding for the two parties were the subject of a tense exchange during jury selection when Cahill – enraged that a civil settlement of $ 27 million for the Floyd family had yet been found – a interrupted Attorney Steve Schleicher mid-sentence.
“How many lawyers are working … for the state in this case, Mr. Schleicher?” Cahill asked. “Is it 10, 12?”
Schleicher replied: “I don’t have that number, your honor, but I do know that the police federation, the union, is funding the defense of the accused.”
Cahill suggested that the number of attorneys on the state side makes it easier for the state to handle ancillary matters – such as handling press conferences on the security of trial and settlement issues and filing affidavits or of queries on these issues.
“The fact (is) that the state has a lot of attorneys on this case, who can sit outside of this courtroom and start making things right,” Cahill said. “Sir. Nelson doesn’t… have the same level of support.
In fact, Nelson does.
With a dozen lawyers helping with the preparation of the case, the investigation and the trial, Peters said the MPPOA expects to spend more than $ 1 million on Chauvin’s case from the fund. legal, which is paid by statewide agents who belong to different unions.
The legal defense fund can also be tapped by the three other officers accused of aiding and abetting Chauvin in Floyd’s death: Thomas Lane, J. Kueng and Tou Thao.
“Whenever you deal as a defense attorney with the state or the federal government, in every criminal case it’s David v Goliath,” Lane’s attorney Earl Gray said. “They (the government) have all the power, they have all the money, they have all the investigators. … So in any criminal defense business, there is that aspect of being underdog.”
Who works for the state?
Chauvin was originally indicted by the Hennepin County District Attorney’s Office before Gov. Tim Walz ordered Ellison to take over the case. Not all bills are up to date, according to the attorney general’s office, but the GA payment on Thursday was just over $ 112,572, not including salaries. Some private lawyers, many of them high-level, volunteer for prosecutions.
Among them, Schleicher, who featured much of the state side during jury selection. A former Assistant U.S. Attorney, he is a trial and appellate attorney and partner at Maslon LLP.
There is also Matthew Frank, head of the criminal division of the Attorney General, who has been called a senior prosecutor with 21 years in the office. Previously, he worked as an assistant county attorney and a public defender – so he knows both sides of the legal equation.
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Others include Jerry Blackwell, founding partner of Blackwell Burke PA In addition to criminal work, he has pleaded complex product liability, tort and commercial liability; Neal Katyal, partner at the international law firm Hogan Lovells, former Acting Solicitor General and Former Senior Deputy Solicitor General of the United States; and Lola Velázquez-Aguilu, litigation and investigative attorney at Medtronic, as well as a former prosecutor in the United States attorney’s office in Minnesota.
Who defends Derek Chauvin?
Chauvin’s case was originally attributed to Tom Kelly, who successfully defended another Minnesota police officer, Jeronimo Yanez, in the death of Philando Castile.
Castile, 32, was fatally shot while in the driver’s seat of a car near the state capitol. The 2016 shoot was also filmed and reached millions of viewers on social media. But Yanez was acquitted in 2017 and the Castile family reached a settlement of $ 3 million.
Kelly’s number was called during the MPPOA rotation for Chauvin. But he was due to retire soon. So, according to Peters, the case went to Nelson, the managing partner of Halberg Criminal Defense.
The other lawyers, who have full-time jobs but are at Nelson’s disposal, are members of the MPPOA legal fund.
When news broke that Nelson was taking over the case, some focused on his experience defending people accused of driving under the influence. Peters was quick to denounce this definition of Nelson.
“You are not on this panel for defending DWI cases. He has experience in several murder trials,” said Peters. “And to say he’s working alone on this is incorrect. He has a lot of backstage support; you might not see him every day in court.”
Eric Ferkenhoff is the Midwest Criminal Justice reporter for the USA TODAY Network.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Derek Chauvin Trial: Police Fund Help Defense Lawyer Eric Nelson