I'm the Minnesota AG who put George Floyd's killer behind bars. The 4 kids I put on the stand are the real heroes.
- Keith Ellison is the Minnesota Attorney General who prosecuted George Floyd's killer.
- Ellison compared the four kids who testified against Derek Chauvin to the Children's Crusade.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison was at the helm of one of the most important and controversial criminal prosecutions of a generation — the murder trial of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin.
On May 25, 2020, Chauvin knelt on the neck of George Floyd for nine minutes and 29 seconds — killing him, as he called out for his mom.
On April 20, 2021, a jury found Chauvin guilty of second-degree murder, and he was sentenced to 22 1⁄2 years in prison. Chauvin also pleaded guilty to federal civil rights charges in Floyd's killing, and the violent arrest of a 14-year-old boy. On those charges, he was sentenced to 21 years in prison.
In his new book, which will be released on May 23, Ellison reveals what it was like fighting for the conviction of George Floyd's killer while police reform activists took to the streets around the world.
The following first-person essay is adapted for Insider from an excerpt from Ellison's upcoming book, "BREAK THE WHEEL: Ending the Cycle of Police Violence."
MINNEAPOLIS — In the early days of testimony in the Minnesota state murder trial of Derek Chauvin, Hennepin County Judge Cahill made an important ruling.
The judge resolved an issue that had me worried for a long while. Cahill announced that the underage witnesses could deliver their testimony off- camera.
We had four witnesses who were 18 or younger: Darnella Frazier, Alyssa Funari, Kaylynn Gilbert, and Judeah Reynolds.
Cahill ordered that the audio of their testimony would be broadcast live by the approved media in the courtroom, but the cameras would be aimed at the judge or lawyers.
The world was waiting to hear from Darnella Frazier— the 18-year-old who was awarded a 2021 Pulitzer Prize Special Citation, along with the 2020 PEN/Benenson Courage Award presented by director Spike Lee, and received multiple scholarship offers at the age of 17.
All of this was because she recorded and uploaded the video that went viral and sparked an international movement.
It is no exaggeration to say that because of the video she uploaded to Facebook in the early morning hours of May 26, 2020, at 1:46 a.m., Chauvin was now in court facing murder and manslaughter charges.
However, her video also moved people to action, from Minneapolis to Frankfurt, from New York to Nairobi.
Her video was in stark contrast to the press statement released by the Minneapolis Police Department that same morning, which stated Floyd's death was the result of a "medical emergency."
Darnella testified that she and her little cousin, Judeah Reynolds, had taken a walk to the neighborhood store for snacks. She said her little cousin "really liked snacks." She denied that it was a dangerous neighborhood, as the police described it. She testified that she walked to that Cup Foods "thousands of times."
Darnella testified that when they walked up to the scene, she saw Floyd facedown on the ground under the officers. She sent Judeah into the store because she didn't want her to see what was unfolding on the street.
Darnella testified: "I heard George Floyd saying, 'I can't breathe, please, get off of me. I can't breathe.'
"He cried for his mom. He was in pain," she told the jury. "It seemed like he knew it was over for him. He was terrified. This was a cry for help."
Darnella told the courtroom that Floyd was "terrified, scared, begging for his life," and saying "I can't breathe," while Chauvin "just stared at us" with "this cold look."
Her testimony made me emotional, though I tried not to show it. She described for the jury how the bystanders tried to get the officers to help Floyd, but to no avail: "They definitely put their hands on the mace, and we all pulled back," Darnella said.
Eric Nelson's cross was focused on making Darnella look like she was motivated by money, fame, or glamour. When Assistant Attorney General Jerry Blackwell re-examined Darnella he asked her about how she felt about the experience of watching Floyd die, and the aftermath. She spoke of her survivor's guilt, and how she saw her family in George Floyd.
"When I look at George Floyd, I look at my dad, I look at my brothers, I look at my cousins, my uncles, because they're all Black." She continued, "I have a Black father. I have a Black brother. I have Black friends."
The impact on her was personal: "I look at how that could have been one of them."
Darnella regretted not having done more to save the life of George Floyd.
She felt regret for not physically engaging the officers, but then came the knockout testimony: "It's been nights I stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life," Darnella Frazier said.
"But it's like, it's not what I should have done, it's what he should have done." When she said "what he should have done" she was looking toward Chauvin. No one on the jury could miss it.
The young people who testified against Derek Chauvin now 'own a piece of justice'
Calling Darnella's cousin Judeah Reynolds, who was nine years old at the time, was controversial on our prosecution team. Some thought she was too young, and her psyche might be scarred by testifying. I consulted Vernona Boswell, Hennepin County attorney's manager of victim- witness services.
On Vernona's advice, we took a lot of time to prep Judeah.
Weeks before the trial, we took her into the courtroom, allowed her to sit on the witness stand, and walked her through her tes-timony. She was allowed to have a supportive adult, LaToya Turk, who stood near her while she testified. When the moment for her to testify came, she did great.
As I thought about Judeah, I couldn't help thinking about heroic children who face down difficulties. I knew Judeah needed to testify so that she could own a piece of justice. I had full confidence in her. When I explained my decision to the team, I told them about children in Birmingham, Alabama, in May 1963.
It was called the Children's Crusade, and its purpose was to draw attention to the civil rights movement going on there. Most of the children's parents had either been arrested or had jobs that depended on staying within the good graces of the people who maintained the system of Jim Crow segregation.
Thousands of Black children ages seven to eighteen demonstrated peacefully around the city of Birmingham, and they were met with hostility by the police and white private citizens. Many of them were arrested and thrown in jail.
These kids helped break Jim Crow in Birmingham. And why not? Weren't they segregated? Didn't they endure segregated education, housing, and transportation, like their parents? Even today, weren't kids like Judeah suffering the effects of police brutality?
Tamir Rice was twelve when he was shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer. Adam Toledo, thirteen, was unarmed, giving himself up for arrest, when a Chicago police officer shot him. I believed Judeah had a right to be part of her own struggle for justice.
Judeah's testimony was short but powerful.
"I was sad and kind of mad," she said, explaining her thoughts on witnessing a police officer with his knee on the man's neck. "It felt like he was stopping his breathing and it was kind of like hurting him."
I wanted the jury to see that if a 9-year-old kid could see the damage Chauvin was doing to Floyd, then anyone could, including academy-trained police officers.
Nelson declined to cross- examine. He was wise to let it go.
Armed only with their phones, three teenage girls knew they had to stand up for George Floyd — a stranger in need
Like Judeah, neither Alyssa Funari nor Kaylynn Gilbert were shown on camera.
Both these young white women were seventeen years old at the time they witnessed Floyd's death, and both testified that they were so outraged by what they saw, they recorded the incident with their cell phones.
Funari and Gilbert were just two buddies hanging out on Memorial Day. While Funari went into Cup Foods to pick up an auxiliary cord for her phone charger, Gilbert waited in the car.
As Funari walked by the officers on top of Floyd, she heard him crying for a breath.
"It was difficult because I felt like there wasn't anything I could do as a bystander," Funari said. "I felt like I was failing."
On Thao's bodycam video, which prosecutor Erin Eldridge played to support Funari's testimony, Funari can be heard saying, "He's not talking now!"
She was responding to Officer Thao, who said, "If he's talking, then he's breathing."
Funari, visibly pregnant and wearing super long eyelashes, said she heard Floyd say, "he couldn't breathe and that his stomach hurt and that he wanted his mom."
Floyd "looked like he was struggling," she said. "He looked like he was fighting to breathe."
Gilbert testified that when she saw the crowd gathering, she got out of the car to witness Floyd being murdered. Gilbert also pulled out her phone to record the officers on top of Floyd.
Gilbert came closer to the officers who were on top of Floyd.
Gilbert was so close, she testified: "I saw [Chauvin] digging his knee into his neck more," referring to Floyd.
"He was putting a lot of pressure into his neck that was not needed," she said.
During our prep session with Gilbert, she told me that she wanted to be a lawyer one day.
I told her she certainly could do it.
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