High-profile prosecution poses risks for AG Keith Ellison

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison answers questions during a news conference in St. Paul on Wednesday about the investigation into the killing of George Floyd, who died May 25, while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers. Gov. Tim Walz said Sunday that he decided Ellison needs to lead the case.
John Autey | Pioneer Press via AP, Pool

Gov. Tim Walz made it clear Sunday that fellow DFLer Keith Ellison, Minnesota’s attorney general, is the one he wants in charge of the murder case against fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, not Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.

“When I spoke to the Floyd family, they were very clear,” Walz said. “They wanted the system to work for them. They wanted to believe that there was trust, and they wanted to believe that the facts would be heard and justice would be served. I can tell you in Minnesota having Keith Ellison as lead on the case, that will happen.”

While Ellison said that he expects to work together with Freeman, and that his office works with counties on criminal cases all the time, it is unusual for the attorney general’s office to take on such a high-profile case. It’s also the biggest case Ellison has handled since taking office last year.

Still, Ellison said he is confident in the capacity of his office. 

“We have a criminal division of highly competent prosecutors that I have tremendous confidence in,” he said. “We believe we have the capability, and we’ll work with our counterparts in Hennepin County to make sure justice is achieved.”

The case will pose a risk for Ellison, said Hamline University political science professor David Schultz, both legally and politically.

“Even if he turns this over to somebody else, this now such a high-profile case that becomes a referendum, in part, on him,” Schultz said. “If this doesn’t go well, if for example his office doesn’t get a conviction, this becomes I think politically very damaging to his career.”

Several state lawmakers from Minneapolis asked Walz specifically for Ellison to be in charge. In a letter to the governor last week they said many have lost faith in Freeman, who is white, to prosecute such cases. 

Rep. Mohamud Noor, DFL-Minneapolis, said Ellison, who is black, has greater respect in the community.

“I think he has got a good background in understanding the community, especially people of color and Indigenous, who have been harmed by police violence, police brutality,” Noor said. “He has got the trust of the community.“

Ellison, who spent more than a decade in Congress, also has plenty of detractors, especially among the state's Republicans. The political criticism has followed him throughout his career and hit a fever pitch in the 2018 campaign for attorney general.

Some Republicans still make their case against Ellison by pointing to a photo he posted on social media in 2018 of him holding a book about the protest movement known as Antifa. When asked recently about the deleted but still circulating photo, Ellison dismissed it as nothing.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said he believes Ellison is too political to be in charge of the case.

“What you want in some case of this magnitude is somebody that everybody believes is a person of honor and integrity and will render justice based on everything that they look at,” Gazelka said. “I’m not sure that the attorney general is perceived in that light.”

During last Saturday’s remotely held Republican state convention, U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer criticized Ellison as too sympathetic to the people rioting in the Twin Cities.

“We do not need Keith Ellison telling us that criminals are the ones that are the victims,” Emmer said. “They are criminals and they need to be arrested, they need to be jailed and they need to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

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