The Chauvin trial looks like David v. Goliath, but it’s not

By: - April 19, 2021 6:00 am

Derek Chauvin’s attorney has carried the load for the defense in the courtroom, but he has a team of attorneys working behind the scenes.

On the ninth day of testimony during one of the most significant police brutality cases in U.S. history, Derek Chauvin’s attorney Eric Nelson began to lose his voice.

Jurors had been taking lots of notes as Dr. Martin Tobin explained how he thought George Floyd died of asphyxia as Chauvin and other former Minneapolis police officers restrained him face down on a street on Memorial Day, 2020.

But Nelson’s cross examination about physics being a constantly changing set of circumstances and the sequential nature of things stopped jurors’ pens cold.

Nelson stopped to take a drink and it sounded like his voice may not make it through the day.

Unlike the prosecution conducted by the office of Attorney General Keith Ellison — which rotated four attorneys in and out throughout the trial — Nelson handled every aspect of the defense in the courtroom, from his opening statement to the final word of testimony last week. 

It seemed like he was overmatched. Even Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill implied as much on the ninth day of jury selection, when he interrupted and snapped at prosecutor Steve Schleicher for criticizing Nelson.

“Let’s recognize the fact that the state has a lot of lawyers on this case who can sit outside this courtroom and start grinding out things,” Cahill said, clearly annoyed. “Mr. Nelson does not have the same level of support. How many lawyers are admitted pro hac vice (for this occasion) and are working for the state in this case, Mr. Schleicher? Is it 10? 12?”

“I don’t have that number, your honor, but I do know that the police federation, the union, is funding the defendant’s defense,” Schleicher responded.

While the jury and TV viewers only saw the bearded attorney and his assistant, Amy Voss, in the courtroom, a rotating cast of prosecutors filled at least four seats at the other table.

But it wasn’t the David vs. Goliath scenario painted by the judge. Nelson is one of a dozen attorneys who handle cases for the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association. While he was the only one behind the dais in court, others were helping behind the scenes.

An MPPOA spokeswoman said any of the dozen attorneys can assist Nelson — including the three attorneys representing the other three officers charged with aiding and abetting Chauvin. The MPPOA legal defense fund is covering the cost of defending all four fired officers.

MPPOA Executive Director Brian Peters told USA Today he expects the group will spend $1 million or more defending the fired officer, who paid union dues for 19 years. Peters did not respond to a request for comment.

The attorney general’s office has spent a fraction of that, because its team of 13 attorneys includes nine outside attorneys working on the case for free — including former Obama administration Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal.

The attorney general’s office did not respond to multiple requests for information about how much it’s costing the state to prosecute the case, so the Reformer filed a public records request. In March, Deputy Attorney General Luz María Frías said the office had spent more than  $92,000. That figure had climbed over $140,000 by Friday, Frías said in an email.

Mary Moriarty, the former chief public defender for Hennepin County, said the defense’s strategy may have been for Nelson to do all the in-court work himself and make it look like Chauvin was up against the vast resources of the state.

“The jury is seeing all these different lawyers on behalf of the state and they’re only seeing (Nelson),” she said. “That’s often something public defenders do.”

She’s been in trials that last months, and says it’s exhausting. She questioned the wisdom of using Nelson for all the courtroom work. 

“I don’t think it was a good idea to be doing all the work,” Moriarty said. “You get really, really tired and you start to miss things. … It gets to be too much, and I think it showed.”

The prosecution assigned different attorneys to areas they excel in. For example, outside attorney Jerry Blackwell, who has experience with civil medical cases, handled medical testimony. He questioned Tobin, who became a popular figure on social media for his down-to-earth demeanor and descriptions.

When it came time to cross-examine Tobin — who Moriarty called “one of the best experts I’ve ever seen” — Nelson struggled to trip up the doctor with the lilting Irish accent. The doctor corrected him several times on medical points, and at one point Nelson jokingly blamed Tobin for making him mispronounce a word because Tobin pronounced it with an accent.  

“Frankly, it was really clear (Nelson) didn’t have a complete handle on what he was talking about,” Moriarty said. “He couldn’t pronounce a lot of the medical words. He was reading questions that he probably got from his expert, and what you really need to do is know that stuff as well as you can.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.