Last week Derek Chauvin, the ex-Minneapolis police officer accused of killing George Floyd, was convicted on two counts of murder and one count of manslaughter. Chauvin was cuffed and hauled off to prison to await sentencing.
The image was a rarity in American history, accountability for a white police officer who murdered a Black man. It was only the second time a police officer was convicted for killing an unarmed person in Minnesota's history. Before Chauvin, the only officer ever held accountable for killing an unarmed person in the state, was a Black police officer who shot and killed a white woman.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison led the prosecution of Chauvin as part of a 14-member team of lawyers. He sat down with NPR recently following the funeral of Daunte Wright, another young Black man shot and killed by police outside Minneapolis in the midst of Chauvin's murder trial.
NOTE: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
We're speaking just after Daunte Wright's funeral and I think of others killed in Minnesota. There's Philando Castile, the police officer who killed him was acquitted. Jamar Clark the officers who killed him were never charged. Does this verdict signal a shift?
I go all the way back to Tycel Nelson, he was a teenager, killed, shot in the back in 1990. The law firm I worked for took his case and we ended up getting a settlement for his family. I remember when I was in law school and we were working on the case of Lillian Weiss and Lloyd Smalley, who were two senior citizens, and the police suspected that there was drug dealing at their house. There wasn't. They did a flash bang grenade into the house, which caught fire and killed them. Nobody was ever held responsible for that. So to me this verdict is a distinctive, decisive shift from what we have come to know, which is that accountability just doesn't happen very much.
Because the institutions protect law enforcement and shield them from accountability. I think as a practical matter, you have a system where some people are beneath the law and some people are above the law. So often people of color, African American people, are just beneath the law. It's OK to do things to them and police are above the law. We don't hold them accountable, particularly if they do certain things to certain people.
Was there ever a moment when you thought, 'OK, we've won this case?'
The moment when the verdicts were read. I knew that when we got second degree murder, that there was no way that they were going to go the other way on the other two charges. But until that moment I was not sure that we were going to win. I knew that when the verdict came back, you know, you couldn't within 24 hours have 12 people who voted to acquit. Not with that evidence. I knew that it was probably good news, but I wasn't sure. And I didn't allow myself to celebrate until I heard those verdicts.
With so much video evidence, bystander testimony, police testimony, expert testimony, should it have been as much of a nail-biter as it was?
I've tried a number of cases in my life. For the first six years of my legal career, I tried three or four cases a year. I know my way around a courtroom. And because of Rodney King being beaten on video and the people who did it walk out, walk away; Walter Scott was executed in South Carolina, the state jury hangs, doesn't convict the officer who did it; it takes four years for Jason Van Dyke to be held accountable for the murder of Laquan McDonald and very likely it never was going to come to light; not to mention Philando Castile; not to mention Jamar Clark; not to mention so many other cases. When you're dealing with a police case, it's just different. It's just different. And so, we threw everything we had into it.
What was it like as a Black man to be prosecuting this incredibly important case when it comes to race, policing and accountability as the world watched?
I hardly thought about the larger implications of it. I treated this case like a mechanic. It was like 'we have to prove this case. There are elements to every crime. Where's the evidence for each one of them? What are the experts we need? What are the witnesses that we need? What are the legal challenges that we're going to face?' And I did not give myself the luxury of thinking about the bigger implications of this case.
But, you know, I've been working on issues of police accountability for years. In fact, a year before George Floyd was murdered, I reached out to my colleague John Harrington, who's the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, and we jointly led a committee to investigate deadly force encounters with the police. We drafted and issued a report that I think is about 80 pages. There are 28 recommendations and 33 action steps. So this is an issue that has been on my mind for a long time. And I thought to myself when I won the race for the attorney general's office 'what's the use of having a person of my experience and background be attorney general if I'm not going to take on policing issues?'
What are the wider implications of this verdict?
There are many. One of them is that citizens who step forward and do the right thing can make a case come forward in situations where often cases didn't come forward.
The other one is if you are a police officer who's inclined to beat on people, and kill them, and shoot them without legal right to do so, you may find the chief of police and many of your colleagues testifying against you.
Now, if you're prosecuting a police officer for excessive force, I don't think that you can put up a half-hearted case. You have to really throw your shoulder into it because that's the expectation. That's what people expect. If it was a notorious murder or some serial rapist, you would see the prosecutorial offices put everything they had into the case. We're going to expect that now in cases where there's excessive force and police are not operating according to the Constitution and the law.
After the verdict you said you wouldn't call it justice. You said the convictions were simply accountability. Justice, you said, comes from social transformation. In your eyes what is social transformation?
Well, let's start with the fact that policing takes place within a context. It takes place within an economic context. It takes place within a context of who gets what and how much.
Look at Minnesota, we have some of the worst disparities in housing, education, criminal justice. And you know what? How does it all stay in place? Well, part of the way it stays in place is through policing. I mean, the bottom line is the police are the guardians of not just the law, but also social norms. And if the social norm is some people are important and some people just don't matter, then the police are going to live that out, which is why we have to say Black lives matter.
So what is social transformation? Let's make sure everybody is housed. Let's make sure everybody can go to the doctor. Let's make sure that people can work, you know? And it is important to keep in mind that George Floyd had Covid, he was essentially an unemployed security guard, a bouncer, who was in a part of town where the folks don't have a lot of money. That's the context in which law enforcement engaged him. I believe a white George Floyd in a so-called nice part of town, who also may have had an opioid problem, who also may have unwittingly passed off to a bad $20, would have been treated dramatically differently.
I don't claim that Derek Chauvin had racial animus in front of mind. I think he just did what society says you get to do to people like George Floyd. And I think that is the transformation we really need.
A trial is planned in August for the other three officers who were in that video of George Floyd being killed. They're charged with aiding and abetting murder. Has this verdict made you think differently about that case?
No, it has not, and I can't really say much more than that, other than they are presumed innocent and they have a right to a fair trial, which I have a personal obligation to make sure they get.
After this verdict, what do you see as the next step for the wider question of accountability in policing?
We've got to start with the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act, that is a must. I'm hoping that Republicans in the Senate don't see it as a partisan piece of legislation, but just as an equal justice piece of legislation. Legislation can make an important difference. Look at the Voting Rights Act, it just transformed America.
But then that leads me to the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act. We've got to get that passed because if we can get basic civil rights in the area of policing, but then lose the right to participate in society, then that's kind of two steps forward, one step back. I see those needing to work in tandem, expanding voting rights and expanding people's right to be treated with dignity and respect on the streets of the United States.
So, you know, the activists, I just want to say they've been indispensable. The governor probably would not have felt the need to appoint me to prosecute the case against Derek Chauvin unless people were protesting in the street. Now, I'm hoping people don't break windows and burn stuff, but protesting and being out there strong, raising their voices, we absolutely need it. In fact, I don't think you'd get anything without it.