In quiet, measured tones, Jerry Blackwell made it clear he’d heard enough.
He’d spent weeks explaining to a jury why ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin should be found guilty of murdering George Floyd. The evidence was so compelling and incensing to Blackwell that he had taken on the case for free.
In closing arguments, Chauvin’s lawyer argued Floyd’s enlarged heart and drug use had killed him — not his client’s knee pressed against Floyd’s neck as the man lay handcuffed and pinned to the street.
Blackwell couldn’t let it pass. “You were told,” the prosecutor said to jurors, “that Mr. Floyd died because his heart was too big. Having heard all the evidence, you know the truth. And the truth of the matter is that the reason George Floyd is dead is because Mr. Chauvin’s heart was too small.”
The next day, the jury convicted Chauvin on all counts. Blackwell became known around the world as the lawyer who opened the case against Derek Chauvin, and then sealed it.
Now, as Chauvin sits in prison awaiting his sentence, Blackwell, 59, is quietly returning to a life where he was better known as a meditation coach, hobby farmer, beekeeper and corporate lawyer.
But he can still recall the jolt that “went through my veins” the first time he saw the bystander video of Chauvin, a white police officer, with his knee on the neck of Floyd, a Black man pleading that he couldn’t breathe, begging for mercy.
As a Black man in America, it felt personal to Blackwell. He’s been stopped by the police. He has friends who’ve been beaten by police.
“I had such a sense of moral outrage at the apparent injustice of it,” he said during a wide-ranging interview at his 38-acre property in Jordan, known as Peacehaven Farm.
“I’ve got friends of mine, who have parents, who have grandparents, who were hung by the neck, lynched in America. Nobody held accountable,” he said. “I have been harassed myself by the police for no reason. Nobody is held accountable.”
The Floyd killing is “the most poignant example of that kind of wrong that I had ever seen in my life.”
‘First thing you hear and the last thing you hear’
Blackwell, founder and chair of the law firm Blackwell Burke, has spent years practicing corporate law. Because he liked to read, his mother told him he should be a lawyer, so in the second grade, he decided to become one. He moved to Minnesota from North Carolina in 1987 to work for the Robins Kaplan law firm, which represented victims of the tragic Bhopal gas leak in India.
Criminal law is emotionally taxing, Blackwell said, so he decided to focus on an area of law in which money could be exchanged in settlements and usually nobody is incarcerated or put out of business.
Not much of the law he practices touches on the lives of everyday people in ways they interact with the police.
So, after he watched Chauvin kneel on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, Blackwell felt it was his duty to raise his hand.
His folksy way of talking through the evidence and bringing the humanity out of key witnesses resonated with jurors. He relied on the theme of common sense and the value of human life through Chauvin’s prosecution.
Those who know him weren’t surprised. They knew his skill at setting a scene, connecting with jurors’ humanity and simplifying complex medical evidence.
“He told them to trust their instincts, to trust themselves,” said Shelley Carthen Watson, a senior associate general counsel for the University of Minnesota and a friend of Blackwell who’s worked with and learned from him over the years.
“A lot of times when people are talking to juries, they say, ‘What I'm going to show you is this, and kind of if you’re smart you’ll get it and you’ll come to this conclusion.’ I think Jerry started from the premise of you know what’s going on, you’ll see what happened and you understand what happened.”
Because Blackwell is a civil defense attorney for corporations, some trial watchers questioned why he was on the criminal prosecution team. Carthen Watson said she’d seen social media comments dismissing him as just a civil lawyer appointed because of his race.
Once people saw him in action, they understood what he was bringing, she said.
Blackwell conceded that Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison took a chance on him and would have faced a lot of criticism had the outcome gone the other way.
Ellison knew Blackwell’s work well, though, as opposing counsel when the state brought claims against some of his clients.
When it came time to pick a prosecution team that would befit the trial against the four officers connected to Floyd’s killing, Ellison called Blackwell before he could volunteer to work on the case.
Blackwell, he said, was the strongest orator on the Chauvin prosecution team. Having him bookend the trial with the opening statement and the closing rebuttal to the defense was intentional.
“The first thing you hear and the last thing you hear are usually what most people are going to remember,” he said.
Added Ellison: “He’s a lawyer who’s been successful economically but still understands that there is a higher calling than just making money, and that is the cause of justice — and he is pursuing that.”
‘George Floyd would still be alive’
When he’s not dressed in a suit and tie in a courtroom, Blackwell dons a T-shirt and jeans on his farm where bushes hum with honeybees, and barn cats run near a goat named Beyoncé.
His in-laws take care of the farm during the week, while Blackwell and his wife visit on weekends. There is always something to fix, paint or plant when he visits. But he mostly goes to get away from the heaviness of work and life.
A meditation bench near a stream on the property is where he goes to just sit, think and reflect.
“I come out here just for the peace of it,” he said, adding that he came to the farm after the verdict “as a way of just trying to regain my old form.”
The bees are a special kind of therapy. He’s become an expert in beekeeping, even offering free classes.
Donning a protective veil, jacket and gloves, he headed down to the bee yard to check on the creatures and whether a recently installed queen was working out. He teaches beekeeping and farming to kids.
Blackwell has other projects outside the farm rooted in law and justice.
He mentors young lawyers of color. He co-founded the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers and says he started his law firm to help provide opportunities to other Black lawyers.
There are always positives and negatives when it comes to progress for racial justice, he said, noting that after the first Black female vice president took office this year, an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol followed.
There is always resistance, but there are also times that demand society pay attention. The killing of George Floyd was that moment for him.
“There are fundamental rights and wrongs. They still do exist. There are injustices, they exist. It’s a fact,” he said. “This is one of them, and I will offer everything I can to be a stake in the ground on this issue.”
The gripping metaphor he conjured for the jury at the very end — that Floyd died because Chauvin’s heart was too small — seemed to drive home the idea that Chauvin in that moment did not see Floyd as a human being.
Sitting in the courtroom on the final day, listening to defense attorney Eric Nelson press jurors that Floyd’s health problems and drug use were to blame for his death, Blackwell said he quickly thought of that image of Chauvin’s heart.
He remembered the prosecution’s youngest witness, a 9-year-old girl, coming to the stand during the trial in a hoodie with the word “love” written on it.
On the bystander video, she can be heard calling repeatedly on Chauvin to get off of Floyd’s neck.
“Very simply, get off of him,” Blackwell recalled her words. “And I thought that if this officer had had the heart of a 9-year-old little girl, George Floyd would still be alive.”
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