For Keith Ellison, sparring in courtrooms goes back many decades. Examining police killings in Minnesota is also nothing new for the former congressman. His work with the state's top prosecutor last year won the first murder conviction against a Minnesota police officer who fatally shot a woman in Minneapolis three years ago.
One of the state's most prominent legal personalities, Ellison, now must confront a legal quagmire that could either gild or tarnish his career: the prosecution of four former Minneapolis police officers involved in the May 25 killing of George Floyd.
Ellison, the state's first black and Muslim attorney general, has become the public face of the prosecution, participating in a battery of national news interviews since the case began. He has a deep history in civil rights activism, which has earned him the trust of Minnesota's black community.
However, Ellison will be partnering with a white male prosecutor who lost the trust of many people of color: Former two-time gubernatorial candidate and longtime Hennepin County prosecutor Mike Freeman. The pairing with Freeman, who he has worked with before, has led to some criticism.
"I would hope that if people want us to do something that really has not been done yet, which is to convict a police officer of second-degree murder, that people would not try to prescribe how I do it and who I do it with," Ellison said in an interview last week. "We're trying to come up with justice for George Floyd, and for anyone to say you've got to do it this way and only with these people seems to me kind of unfair."
Gov. Tim Walz said he asked Ellison to take over the case upon the urging of Floyd's family. Ellison faces continuing calls to elevate the murder charges against Chauvin to first degree, which would require proof of premeditation. His partnership with Freeman could also fray Ellison's support among the same civil rights activists with whom Ellison has marched for decades.
"When you start off praising Mike Freeman, then where is our justice going to come from?" said Spike Moss, a longtime Minneapolis civil rights activist, who said Ellison surprised him in May when he brought Freeman to a meeting that Moss helped arrange with the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
More than 20 years ago, Moss led a protest after police shot a black 16-year-old Minneapolis boy. Ellison represented the boy and rejected a plea deal before Freeman agreed to drop charges. At the rally, Ellison told reporters that "police brutality … won't change unless we're willing to do something about it."
In 2015, then a congressman, Ellison flew back to Minneapolis to huddle with protesters enraged at the Minneapolis police killing of Jamar Clark. The case prompted an 18-day encampment at the city's Fourth Precinct police station. Freeman declined to file charges in that case, citing evidence that the officers involved feared for their lives during a struggle over a gun. Ellison met with Freeman and urged him to stop using secretive grand juries to make charging decisions in police killings. Freeman has since made those calls himself.
Clark's death was among the many deadly police encounters that weighed on Ellison's mind as he and Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington convened a working group on the subject last year. Freeman spoke at several public forums and voiced support for giving Ellison's office authority to lead all of the state's prosecutions of officers charged with killing civilians.
Ellison has a long record of trying cases, but all of that has come as a defense attorney. He said in an interview that he "probably" won't personally try the four former Minneapolis officers charged in the death of Floyd. Either way, longtime prosecutors and former attorneys general still say his work on approaching cases from the defense's perspective could serve him well.
"The interesting thing in this is that … the facts involved in this matter are known — they're on videotape, for crying out loud," said Mike Hatch, a former Minnesota attorney general. "So it's not going to be a great deal of investigation going on to find out what happened. What it's going to be is a great deal of legal issues that crop up — everything from a change of venue to the difference between second- and third-degree [murder]."
Freeman faced swift pressure to charge all four officers in the case after a bystander's video went viral, showing Chauvin kneeling on Floyd's neck for nearly eight minutes as he pleaded that he couldn't breathe.
Freeman's public comments around the initial charges he filed against Chauvin failed to stem the growing unrest over Floyd's death. The first criminal complaint was seen as hastily assembled. Critics noted that it misspelled Floyd's name twice and that it seemed to provide more of an argument against prosecution than in support of charges.
Two days after Chauvin's arrest, Freeman asked Ellison for help and sent out a news release saying the two would jointly be working the case. But the governor caught Freeman off guard later that evening by publicly declaring that it was his call to tap Ellison to take the lead.
Less than 48 hours later, Chauvin faced tougher charges of second-degree unintentional murder, and the three other former Minneapolis police officers involved in Floyd's death were jailed and accused of aiding and abetting.
In a room full of national and local press, Ellison reminded everyone that he would do the talking in this case. "We have one goal and one goal only: justice for George Floyd," Ellison said.