An Insider’s View of the George Floyd Murder Trial

The country was riveted for three weeks in 2021 during the trial of the former police officer Derek Chauvin, as a jury in Minneapolis considered whether the death of George Floyd was murder. Through it all, Keith Ellison, the attorney general of Minnesota who was directing the prosecution, was a constant yet silent presence in the courtroom.

Through the proceedings, he wrote in old notebooks saved from his days serving in Congress. When he ran out, a friend who worked for a law firm supplied him with more notebooks. He filled those, too.

“I wasn’t trying to be a stenographer,” Mr. Ellison, 59, said in an interview this month. “I was thinking, ‘What do I need to remember?’”

Those notes informed the prosecution’s nightly meetings during the trial. But they also became the foundation for Mr. Ellison’s new book, “Break the Wheel: Ending the Cycle of Police Violence,” which will be published by Twelve on Tuesday. It is a trial diary of sorts, a clear, methodical account of his experience directing the prosecution of Mr. Chauvin, in the rare murder conviction of a police officer for an on-duty death.

The book documents a case that was both a landmark national trial and a return to Mr. Ellison’s early roots as a civil rights lawyer in Minnesota, where he attended law school. In 2006, Mr. Ellison stepped onto the national stage, becoming the first Muslim person elected to Congress, serving six terms as part of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. He continued his rise into national politics as a deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, but in 2018 returned to where his career began, winning election as attorney general of Minnesota.

He had been in office for less than two years when the governor of Minnesota took the unusual step of assigning Mr. Ellison to lead prosecution of the Chauvin case.

In the days after the jury delivered a guilty verdict of two counts of murder as well as manslaughter, Mr. Ellison was bombarded with calls from prosecutors across the country, asking him for advice in managing cases of police misconduct. When he began writing the book, what he hoped to produce was simple: a document that could be both a historical account and a guide to officials when faced with a case of police misconduct.

“Quite honestly, I don’t think you could really solve a problem unless you prosecute criminal conduct and you fire bad conduct,” Mr. Ellison said. “I think you’ve got to have a response or you’re just not going to stop having this problem.”

Mr. Ellison said he worked on the book in the early mornings, usually at 5 a.m., the only time he could spare. On some days, he said, he wrote not a single sentence, struggling to put his memories and experience into words. On other days, the paragraphs poured out as he wrote for hours, stopping by 8 a.m. before his workday.

For Mr. Ellison, the Chauvin case was a high-profile trial that returned him to the national spotlight, but far from his first experience in the arena of civil rights.

As a young lawyer in Minneapolis, he represented the mother of Tycel Nelson, a teenager who was shot and killed by a police officer, and helped win her a civil settlement. Mr. Ellison became known as an early proponent of community-based policing, long before the notion had gained popularity nationwide.

But he has also attracted criticism for moving further to the left than some of his fellow Democrats, particularly for his support of an effort in the months after Mr. Floyd’s death to replace the troubled Minneapolis Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety. Amid rising worries about crime, that effort failed at the polls.

When he took on the prosecution of Mr. Chauvin, the case was seen as an outlier, since the deaths of civilians by on-duty police officers are rarely prosecuted in the United States. Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, asked Mr. Ellison to lead the prosecution instead of the local county attorney, saying that Mr. Ellison, who had deep ties among racial justice advocates in Minneapolis, was needed on the case.

In the book, Mr. Ellison describes the challenge that he had been handed, noting that in many cases — including the beating by police officers of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991 — the officers involved were acquitted. Though there was overwhelming evidence in the prosecution’s favor in the Chauvin case, including extensive cellphone video of Mr. Floyd’s death, Mr. Ellison did not view the case as easily winnable. “I knew the video was no magic wand,” he writes in the upcoming book.

Mr. Ellison wrote in detail about the jury selection process, one of the greatest challenges facing the prosecution. They were hoping for a jury that offered diversity of race and also of life experience: One potential juror, a middle-aged white male, Mr. Ellison wrote, seemed like “a nice man, a hardworking fellow” but unaware of the country’s changing, complicated cultures.

Prosecutors used one of their strikes to remove him from the jury. “We needed people who would accept our theory in the case,” Mr. Ellison said in an interview. “And if you’re deliberately oblivious to the American cultural landscape, then it’s easy for you to be like, ‘Well, I don’t know anybody like that. So it’s not like that.’”

The jury that was chosen was a mix of men and women, Black, white and multiracial: “the single most diverse jury I had ever impaneled,” he wrote.

When the jury completed its deliberations, and Mr. Ellison began to receive word that a verdict was in, he was torn between confidence and uncertainty. After the guilty verdicts were read, he wrote, he felt relief.

Later, Mr. Ellison was reminded of his own vulnerability. During his re-election campaign last November, when crime became the defining issue and Mr. Ellison was criticized from the right, he came close to losing.

His margin of victory was just over 20,000 votes, out of nearly 2.5 million votes cast, a closer race even than his initial election four years before.

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