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Minneapolis legal center attorneys explain Chauvin trial in weekly Zoom sessions

Susan Du, Star Tribune on

Published in News & Features

MINNEAPOLIS – The Legal Rights Center, a nonprofit criminal defense law firm in Minneapolis, usually defends those whom Minneapolis police accuse of committing crimes.

But as Derek Chauvin stands trial for the death of George Floyd, a panel of the firm's attorneys are now finding themselves scrutinizing the defense of a police officer.

The proceedings are the first opportunity many laypeople have had to watch a murder trial from gavel to gavel, with all its grisly evidence, legal jargon, and esoteric codes of conduct.

The Legal Rights Center has been demystifying the proceedings through weekly virtual discussions, making lawyers available on Zoom and Instagram.

In addition to explaining court procedures during a weekly "ask-an-attorney" Q&A that the center hosts, they note possible key points in the trial.

How Chauvin comes across to jurors could be crucial, for instance, particularly if his attorney Eric Nelson puts him on the stand, said Andrew Gordon, the center's deputy director of community legal services.

Nelson has been asking witnesses about the number of bystanders and the level of their agitation toward Chauvin as he restrained Floyd, Gordon pointed out, as a possible defense.

"You're getting questions about distraction, and about the crowd, because if Chauvin took the stand and testified himself, that's what you will be hearing him say," Gordon speculated. "From a purely defense attorney perspective, it's an interesting kind of tactical consideration, where you can see Eric Nelson and his defense team trying to figure out, 'Is this argument working?' "

Legal Rights Center attorney Josh Esmay, a former Ramsey County public defender, hosted an Instagram Live Q&A following opening statements.

 

To a question from the audience about the significance of the order of witnesses, he explained the most impactful testimonies come when jurors' attention is strongest — the beginning and the end.

"The last witness that you'll see the state call before they close … will also be somebody who they have the kind of high confidence will be able to really capture the attention of the jury and give an impactful performance," Esmay predicted.

In addition to discussing strategy, attorneys offer personal observations and opinions on the trial:

Activist and attorney Nekima Levy Armstrong pointed out that Chauvin did not seem impacted by any of the witness testimonies, nor the agonizing barrage of videos replaying Floyd's arrest from different angles.

"We still don't know who Derek Chauvin actually is. I'm not sure if we'll know by the end of this trial," she said, remarking on Chauvin's impassivity throughout the proceedings. "Typically we see the demonization of Black children and Black families and Black neighborhoods. Derek Chauvin certainly holds up a mirror to white America, to cause you to ask the question of, 'What kind of people are being produced in some of these environments?' "

Mary Moriarty, the former chief public defender in Hennepin County, questioned whether Nelson had fully prepared his client to present to jurors, who would be watching him all the time. Sometimes defense attorneys will engage their clients in conversation to show the jury evidence of their humanity, but there hasn't been any of that, she said.

The Legal Rights Center is also hosting healing circles for members of the public to emotionally process the trial, and devising a legal response to potential arrests of protesters in coming weeks.

"We want to make sure that folks on the ground who are out exercising their constitutional rights are protected to the degree possible," said Legal Rights Center director Sarah Davis. "Obviously you can't control for law enforcement behavior, but to the degree that we can make sure people know what their rights are, and that they have access to a legal support line."

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