Viewers watching the trial of a former Minneapolis officer charged with murder in George Floyd‘s death may be struck by the array of prosecutors taking turns presenting their case. The choice of who does what is no accident.
While Derek Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, works alone, the prosecution is being handled by two assistant attorneys general, Matthew Frank and Erin Eldridge, and two outside lawyers, Jerry Blackwell and Steve Schleicher. Ten more are working behind the scenes, many for free.
Experts agree the roles played by prosecutors are based on the skill sets each brings, but appearances matter, too.
WHY DID BLACKWELL GIVE THE OPENING STATEMENT?
The undercurrent of racial tension — a white police officer accused of killing a Black man — can’t be ignored. Blackwell is a prominent Black civil rights attorney and one of the founders of the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers. Last year, he won a posthumous pardon for a Black man wrongly convicted of rape before the infamous Duluth lynchings of 1920.
But law professors following the case said it’s Blackwell’s unique ability to translate complicated legal jargon into information jurors can understand that made him the obvious pick to lay out the prosecution’s case.
“One of the things he’s known for is his ability to speak English rather than ‘legalese,’” said Joseph Daly, emeritus professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota. “It’s extremely important in this case just to try to explain what the elements of the crimes are that Mr. Chauvin is charged with.”
ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIN ELDRIDGE QUESTIONED TWO OF THE YOUNGEST WITNESSES. WHY?
Eldridge joined the Minnesota attorney general’s office in 2018. Before that, she served as a special assistant U.S. attorney in Nebraska and the Northern District of Iowa.
Jonathan Simon, a professor at University of California Berkeley School of Law, noted that our culture associates women with “being more caretaking toward children, toward juveniles.”
Using Eldridge as the questioner may help to “ease the witnesses’ experience and get their testimony as effectively as possible, but also to help the jury see this in the most sympathetic light,” Simon said.
Daly said Eldridge “was particularly adept at showing empathy and kindness and a certain softness, which I think is really important when you’re questioning children.”
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When an 18-year-old witness, Alyssa Funari, began to cry, Eldridge told her to take her time and offered a tissue.
“Is this difficult for you to talk about?” Eldridge asked. “Do you need a minute?”
IS THERE A DRAWBACK TO USING SO MANY DIFFERENT PROSECUTORS?
St. Louis University School of Law professor Sue McGraugh said she sought to make a personal connection with jurors when she was a prosecutor. She said she’s rarely seen a case with so many prosecutors, and that it carries some risk.
“It’s unusual because, as someone who has tried a lot of cases, you do want the jury to form some sort of attachment to someone on the legal team,” McGraugh said.
SO, WHY SO MANY?
It’s evidence of the stakes in the trial that Daly called “possibly one of the most important cases ever in the United States and possibly the world.”
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz appointed Attorney General Keith Ellison to handle the prosecution just days after Floyd’s death, and Ellison vowed to utilize whatever resources were necessary.
Frank and Schleicher have handled the lion’s share of questioning since the trial began. Frank is a 21-year veteran of the attorney general’s office and has led the criminal division for 14 years. Daly called Frank “the most experienced and skilled lawyer in the criminal division of the attorney general’s office.”
Schleicher is a veteran trial attorney and prosecutor who works for the law firm Maslon LLP. He spent 13 years in the U.S. attorney’s office and was a prosecutor in the case of Danny Heinrich, who confessed in 2016 that he killed 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in 1989, and led authorities to his body.
WHAT IS THE FULL DEPTH OF THE PROSECUTION TEAM?
The prosecution team has 13 lawyers, said John Stiles, Ellison’s spokesman, and a 14th acted as a jury consultant.
Ellison, Frank and Eldridge are the only ones who work in the attorney general’s office. The team also includes Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Joshua Larson and nine outside attorneys. Stiles said the outside attorneys are all working pro bono, or without pay.
The roster behind the scenes is deep. Perhaps the best-known player is Neal Katyal, former U.S. acting solicitor general who has argued dozens of cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Katyal led a successful effort to get a third-degree murder charge reinstated against Chauvin after the judge initially ruled it didn’t fit the circumstances.
Stiles said in an email that about half of the outside attorneys are working full-time on the case.
WHAT ABOUT THE DEFENSE?
Nelson is the lone defense attorney, aided in court by a legal assistant who is also an attorney but who hasn’t taken part in the courtroom arguments. The defense is funded through the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association’s legal defense fund. Though Chauvin was fired soon after Floyd’s death, he has the right to representation through his years as a member of his local union.
Nelson is an attorney with the Minneapolis firm Halberg Criminal Defense and one of 12 attorneys for the MPPOA who take turn handling officer-involved cases. While Nelson is alone in court, he can consult with the other 11 attorneys, the association said.
Still, the in-court optics are hard to ignore.
Judge Peter Cahill has said Nelson “does not have the same level of support” as the prosecution.
By JIM SALTER Associated Press