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Derek Chauvin prosecution team
From left: Attorney General Keith Ellison, Jerry Blackwell of Blackwell Burke, Steve Schleicher of Maslon, Lola Velazquez-Aguilu of Medtronic, Josh Larson of the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, and Matt Frank of the Office of the Attorney General. Not pictured is Erin Eldridge of the Office of the Attorney General. Blackwell, Frank, Schleicher and Velazquez-Aguilu are Circle of Excellence honorees.

2021 Attorneys of the Year: Derek Chauvin prosecution

Attorney General Keith Ellison; Matt Frank and Erin Eldridge of the Office of the Attorney General; Jerry Blackwell of Blackwell Burke; Steve Schleicher of Maslon; Lola Velazquez-Aguilu of Medtronic and Josh Larson of the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office

Video of Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd for nine minutes and 29 seconds was the state’s best evidence against the former officer. But video alone wouldn’t secure guilty verdicts, given the rarity of convictions of officers for excessive use of force.

Attorney General Keith Ellison took the unprecedented step of prosecuting — at the request of Gov. Tim Walz and Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman — what would be Minnesota’s first televised criminal trial.

Ellison assembled a prosecution team including attorneys from the criminal division and other divisions of the attorney general’s office, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office and local and national pro bono attorneys in private practice. Members varied in race, gender, age and professional experience, with Ellison noting research showing that diverse groups make better decisions.

Through nine months of research and preparation, Ellison convened weekly meetings of the full team and subcommittees focusing on specific case issues.

Ellison’s team approach “proved to be a creative and brilliant strategy,” says team member Jerry Blackwell, founder and CEO of Blackwell & Burke. Blackwell wanted “to see the law fairly applied, even to the police, and especially in the face of a difficult conviction history in abuse of force cases.”

Bystander and other video showed jurors the May 2020 incident, says team member Steven Schleicher, a Maslon partner and former federal prosecutor. Prosecutors then established that Chauvin’s actions were not proper policing, went against training, constituted excessive force and caused Floyd’s death.

The critical theme of the case was “you can believe your eyes,” says team member Lola Velazquez-Aguilu, lead counsel of Medtronic’s brain modulation business and former assistant U.S. attorney.

“To tell them, ‘what you’re seeing is what happened’ was helping to give them permission to convict notwithstanding the bias in favor of law enforcement,” Velazquez-Aguilu says.

Read more about Minnesota Lawyer’s superb class of Attorneys of the Year for 2021 here.

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