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“Broken Doors,” Episode 1
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Derek Chauvin’s lawyer appears outnumbered at trial. But colleagues say Eric Nelson’s low-key style is easy to underestimate.

Members of the National Guard stand outside the Hennepin County Government Center on March 11 in Minneapolis. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
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The Court TV cameras in the daily drama known as the State of Minnesota v. Derek Chauvin have given a starring role to a little-known criminal defense lawyer, Eric Nelson, who is representing the former Minneapolis police officer charged in George Floyd’s death.

Inside the courtroom, coronavirus-related social distancing rules limit the number of people present on each side. But Nelson still appears outnumbered ahead of the formal opening of Chauvin’s trial on Monday.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison has assembled a deep bench to help make the state’s case, including a former federal prosecutor, a prominent Supreme Court advocate and a corporate lawyer who argued the state’s first posthumous pardon last year for a Black man wrongly convicted of raping a White woman a century ago.

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is facing second and third-degree murder and manslaughter charges in the May 2020 death of George Floyd. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

On the other side is Nelson, with a legal assistant. Even Hennepin County District Judge Peter A. Cahill has commented on the apparent imbalance.

When one of the state’s lawyers criticized Nelson for raising concerns about pretrial publicity during a hearing instead of first filing a formal brief, the judge interrupted.

“I cannot expect Mr. Nelson to step out of these proceedings where we’ve been in session since 8:30 this morning to file affidavits to add to his record,” Cahill said. “The state has a lot of lawyers on this case who can sit outside this courtroom and start grinding out things.”

“Mr. Nelson, he does not have the same level of support,” Cahill said. “How many lawyers now are admitted . . . and are working for the state on this case so far?”

Ten? Twelve? the judge asked.

There are a total of 14 attorneys working on the prosecution’s team.

But former colleagues and friends say Nelson’s understated approach is easy to underestimate. He is also leaning on attorneys for the three other former police officers charged in Floyd’s death, all of whom have a shared interest in seeing Chauvin acquitted because it makes proceedings against their clients less likely to move forward.

“He is outnumbered, but sometimes too many cooks spoil the broth,” said veteran defense attorney Earl Gray, who represents former officer Thomas K. Lane and is in regular touch with Nelson by text and at occasional weekend meetings.

In court, Gray noted, “Only one lawyer can speak at a time.”

Nelson was enlisted by the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, the organization funding Chauvin’s defense, after the first lawyer appointed to represent Chauvin retired. Nelson has experience handling high-profile cases. He represented former Minnesota Vikings player Joe Senser’s wife, who was convicted in the 2011 hit-and-run death of a Minneapolis chef.

“It may seem like he’s a one-man show, but it’s far from what you see on TV,” Brian Peters, executive director of the police association, said of Nelson’s behind-the-scenes support.

The spotlight on Chauvin’s trial, however, is brighter, with nonstop media coverage in a community still reeling from Floyd’s May 25 death, restrained, handcuffed and face down on a South Minneapolis street during a police investigation of a counterfeit $20 bill that had allegedly been passed at a local market.

Chauvin, the White officer filmed with his knee on Floyd’s neck, faces charges of second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the Black man’s death.

Chauvin faces a sentence of up to 40 years if convicted of murder but could serve as little as 10 years based on state guidelines. The manslaughter charge carries a prison term of roughly four years but is up to the judge’s discretion.

The other former police officers — Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao — are scheduled to go to trial in August on charges of aiding and abetting.

On the other side of the courtroom, the prosecution’s team is a hub of activity with attorneys, including Ellison himself, constantly rotating in and out.

Corporate lawyer Jerry Blackwell, a founder of the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers, is expected to play a leading role for the state and to deliver opening statements on Monday.

In June, with Ellison’s encouragement, Blackwell applied for and won a posthumous pardon for Max Mason nearly 100 years after the infamous lynching in Duluth of three other Black men in connection with the alleged rape of a White woman. In announcing the pardon, Gov. Tim Walz (D) drew a direct line from that dark chapter in the state’s history to Floyd.

Blackwell, who has worked to diversify the ranks of state judges, said at the time that Mason and the three other men who were traveling circus workers were targeted because of “being born Black and passing through Duluth at the wrong time.”

“Max Mason’s story is a part of the Duluth tragedy story. And it is a history that does not go away until it is set right,” Blackwell said in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio.

From his work representing large companies in product liability lawsuits, Blackwell is at ease questioning expert witnesses and doctors and simplifying complex concepts for jurors. Former colleague Peter Goss called Blackwell a gifted storyteller who connects with jurors because of his life experience.

Blackwell grew up in Kannapolis, N.C., attending college and law school at the University of North Carolina. In his free time, he raises bees and harvests honey at his farm along the Minnesota River.

“He’s able to meet jurors where they’re at, no matter where they come from,” Goss said. “The kinds of barriers that get in the way of a lot of trial lawyers communicating with jurors, Jerry is the best at bringing those down,” Goss said.

Blackwell is joined by Matthew Frank, an experienced state prosecutor and former public defender who leads the attorney general’s criminal division. In his role, Frank has traveled the state assisting local prosecutors with complex cases and handling appeals. Last year, Frank prosecuted Lois Riess, who admitted to killing her husband in 2018 before fleeing to Florida, where she committed a second murder.

Also on the state’s team is Steve Schleicher, a former longtime federal prosecutor who was chief of the St. Paul branch of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and has experience as a state prosecutor and in the military court system. In 2016, ­Schleicher’s work led to the resolution of an unsolved case dating to 1989 against a Minnesota man who kidnapped and killed 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling.

In private practice, an investigation Schleicher helped lead in 2017 uncovered serious lapses by a private security firm that worked at U.S. Bank Stadium, home to the Vikings.

“He’s very good at telling people things that are hard to hear,” said his colleague David Suchar, who wrote the report with Schleicher that led to the firing of the security firm. “He’s really focused on doing justice, the mission he took on as a federal prosecutor.”

Frank and Schleicher received their law degrees from what is now Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul.

Although he is unlikely to appear regularly in the trial courtroom, the state is also drawing on the expertise of former acting U.S. solicitor general Neal Katyal for legal strategy and appeals. After Katyal’s argument at the Minnesota Court of Appeals, the trial judge agreed to reinstate a third-degree murder charge against Chauvin. The additional charge gives prosecutors another route to conviction.

Katyal, who also teaches criminal law at Georgetown Law School, has argued 44 cases at the Supreme Court, including against President Donald Trump’s travel ban in 2018. He has assistance from seven other attorneys from his firm, Hogan Lovells. None of the lawyers in private practice is charging the state.

Outside the courthouse, Chauvin’s attorney, wearing a mask and often walking alone, has routinely gone unrecognized by the protesters who gather at the scene and the local media, many of whom had never heard of Nelson before he was picked to represent Chauvin last summer.

But his new role has attracted attention, much of it negative. During a discussion about the possibility of sequestering the jury in a pretrial hearing in September, the judge said he had received “a barrage of calls” seeking to influence the outcome of the case. The defense attorneys for all four defendants — who were being tried jointly at the time — indicated they or their clients had also received phone calls or messages, almost all threatening.

“There have been threats to myself, threats to my colleagues,” Nelson said, telling Cahill he had logged over 1,000 emailed threats.

Even other Minnesota attorneys named Eric Nelson were getting threats, he added. One, a Twin Cities divorce lawyer, added a disclaimer to his website explaining he was not Chauvin’s attorney. “I wish my parents had named me Thor instead,” he wrote, linking to the website for Chauvin’s attorney.

Throughout the roughly two weeks of jury selection, Nelson seemed acutely aware of the theater of the courtroom and that his client was already being scrutinized by the people who are to decide his fate.

After a potential juror spoke of how she could not get past the “hateful look” on Chauvin’s face in the viral video of his encounter with Floyd, Nelson changed how he introduced the former officer in the courtroom. Chauvin, who had sat at the defense table taking notes and barely making eye contact, stood and removed his face mask and nodded at the group of jurors, a gesture he repeated throughout the rest of selection.

Nelson’s former colleagues say he is not rattled by the attention, that he is well-organized and known for thinking on his feet.

Nelson played baseball at Eastern University in Pennsylvania, where he studied history and initially worked in museums before also attending what is now Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

He represented Levi Acre-Kendall, who was acquitted after claiming self-defense in the fatal stabbing of a man in 2015. Two years later, he helped secure an acquittal for a Minnesota man charged with fatally shooting his unarmed neighbor.

While Nelson may be at a disadvantage when it comes to divvying up research, the drafting of motions or preparing for individual witnesses, the optics could help with jurors. Nelson can tell the jury, for instance, that they are a shield against the endless power of the state, said his former colleague Michael Brandt.

“Sometimes you don’t see him coming,” Brandt said. “He’ll lull folks into a false sense of security, but the wheels are spinning, and he’s thinking three or four moves ahead.”

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