A special prosecutor who played a key role in landing a murder conviction in the case of the former Minneapolis Police officer accused of killing George Floyd has taken the federal bench.
Attorney Jerry Blackwell was sworn in as a U.S. District Judge for the District of Minnesota on Wednesday, the district announced in a press release. President Joe Biden had nominated Blackwell to the bench in June, more than a year after Blackwell had served as the lead Special Assistant Attorney General on the legal team that prosecuted Derek Chauvin for Floyd’s murder.
In May of 2020, Chauvin was recorded kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, despite bystander pleas to stop and Floyd repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe.” Floyd’s death sparked nationwide protests over racial injustice and police brutality, and Chauvin was convicted of murder in April of 2021.
Blackwell was confirmed by a 51-43 vote by the U.S. Senate earlier this month. He fills a vacancy left by Senior U.S. District Judge Susan R. Nelson, who was appointed by Barack Obama in 2013.
“Jerry Blackwell is one of the most experienced and respected trial judges in Minnesota. It is difficult to imagine a lawyer who is better qualified to serve as a United States District Judge,” said Chief U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz, a George W. Bush appointee, in Wednesday’s news release. Blackwell is the third African American to take the federal bench in Minnesota.
During the Chauvin trial, Blackwell gave opening statements that laid out what would ultimately be the prosecution team’s successful case, emphasizing Chauvin’s position of authority and telling jurors that Floyd would still be alive if it weren’t for the disgraced officer.
Blackwell also gave a powerful closing argument that focused on the helplessness of the bystanders to Floyd’s death and pushing back on Chauvin’s defense that he was acting as a “reasonable officer.”
Blackwell isn’t just known for his role on the Chauvin prosecution team. As detailed in the District Court’s press release, in June of 2020 Blackwell and his law firm, Blackwell Burke P.A., secured a pardon for Max Mason, a young Black man who was wrongfully convicted of raping a white woman in Duluth 1920. Three other Black men accused in the same alleged assault — which may not have even occurred — were broken out of jail by a mob of white people and hung from a lamppost. The lynchings would eventually become known as one of the city’s most troubling times.
Blackwell is a founder of the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he was a Morehead-Cain Scholar, and he earned his law degree from the University of North Carolina School of Law.
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