The murder of George Floyd

Explainer: Chauvin's lawyer is outnumbered, but has help

A man speaks behind a desk.
Defense attorney Eric Nelson speaks to judge Peter Cahill ahead of jury selection on Wednesday.
Screenshot of Court TV video

As opening statements approach for a former Minneapolis police officer charged in George Floyd's death, the early proceedings suggest it's not exactly a fair fight. No fewer than four attorneys have appeared for the prosecution so far, compared to a single attorney to defend Derek Chauvin. Many other lawyers are working for the prosecution behind the scenes.

It's an apparent mismatch that results from the state's takeover of the prosecution, but defense attorney Eric Nelson is getting some help.

Who are the key players for the prosecution?

Floyd, who was Black, was declared dead May 25, 2020, after Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee on Floyd's neck while Floyd was handcuffed and pleading that he couldn't breathe. Days later, amid massive protests over Floyd's death, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz directed Attorney General Keith Ellison to take the case.

Ellison, Minnesota's first African American elected attorney general, is in court but Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank is leading the prosecution. Frank heads the state's criminal division.

The prosecution is bolstered by outside attorneys working for free. They include former U.S. acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal; former federal prosecutor Steven Schleicher; and Jerry Blackwell, who last year won a posthumous pardon for a man wrongly convicted of rape in connection with the Duluth lynchings of 1920, and is a founder of the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers.

In addition to Katyal, the prosecution has received court approval for at least six other out-of-state attorneys to serve as co-counsels, according to court records.

Does the prosecution have deeper pockets?

Almost certainly. This is one of the most significant court cases in recent history and it is clear the state will spare no expense. That point was driven home by Ellison as soon as he took over, when he vowed to "bring to bear all the resources necessary to achieve justice in this case."

Conversely, the defense is funded through the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association's legal defense fund. The MPPOA is a police advocacy organization made up of local police unions from across the state. Though he was fired soon after Floyd's death, Chauvin earned the right to representation through his years as a member of his local union, the Minneapolis Police Federation.

MPPOA Executive Director Brian Peters said supporters of Chauvin have asked to donate to his defense, but no donations are accepted. Instead, those people are directed to the National Center for Police Defense. Donations to the center aren't used for legal purposes, Peters said, but rather for living expenses for Chauvin and the three other officers accused in Floyd's death, all of whom lost their jobs. Peters said he did not know how much has been donated on behalf of the officers.

How was Nelson selected as Chauvin’s attorney?

Peters said the MPPOA works with a group of 12 defense attorneys who take turns handling cases as they come up. Originally, Chauvin's defense was assigned to attorney Tom Kelly, but Kelly retired and Nelson replaced him.

What is Nelson’s background?

Nelson is an attorney with the Minneapolis firm Halberg Criminal Defense. His biography on the firm's website says his experience includes cases involving "homicide, sex offenses, drug offenses, assaults and hundreds of DWI and alcohol-related traffic offenses." He's enough of an expert on driving while intoxicated that he frequently lectures on the topic and often contributes to a DWI sourcebook for Minnesota attorneys, his biography says.

"I saw a couple of reports of, 'The MPPOA selected a DWI lawyer to represent Chauvin,'" Peters said. "To be on our panel of attorneys is not very easy. You are vetted very aggressively, we'll just say. That's why we have 12 of the best defense attorneys on our panel."

One of his most prominent cases involved Amy Senser, the wife of former Minnesota Vikings tight end Joe Senser, who was convicted in the 2011 hit-and-run death of a Minneapolis chef. Though Nelson argued for probation, Senser received a sentence of 41 months in prison.

He's had success in previous murder cases. He helped win an acquittal for a Minnesota man who was charged with fatally shooting his unarmed neighbor in 2017. He also won an acquittal for a Wisconsin man who testified that he feared for his safety when he fatally stabbed a man who confronted him in 2015.

Is Nelson working alone?

Only on the surface, Peters said.

Different attorneys were assigned to each of the four officers. Those four attorneys have worked together behind the scenes from the outset, Peters said, and Nelson continues to consult with them.

Nelson also has access to the other eight attorneys who are part of the MPPOA's 12-attorney rotation.

The MPPOA also provides consultants on topics such as use-of-force and medical issues, "and Eric has been working very closely with those consultants," Peters said. Expert witnesses also are available if Nelson chooses to use them.

"It may appear that it's just Eric, but that is very far from the truth," Peters said.