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For Chauvin’s trial attorney, it’s all about raising doubt

In this image from video, defense attorney Eric Nelson questions Dr. Andrew Baker, Hennepin County Chief Medical Examiner, as Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill presides Friday in the trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn. Chauvin is charged in the May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd. (AP photo)

MINNEAPOLIS — Derek Chauvin’s defense attorney was questioning George Floyd’s girlfriend about the couple buying drugs when he abruptly shifted gears for what seemed an innocuous question: He presumed the couple had pet names for each other. Under what name, he asked, did she appear in Floyd’s phone?

Courteney Ross first smiled at the question, then paused before replying: “Mama.”

The fleeting exchange called into question the widely reported account that Floyd was crying out for his deceased mother as he lay pinned to the pavement. And it appeared to be one in a series of moves aimed at undermining a dominant narrative of Floyd’s death — established through bystander video and saturation news coverage and commentary — of a reckless, arrogant cop ignoring a man’s “I can’t breathe” cries as his life is snuffed out.

At another moment in the trial, Nelson asked a paramedic if he had responded to “other” overdose calls before quickly correcting himself to say “overdose calls” — perhaps a simple mistake, or an attempt to plant the idea that Floyd’s death was an overdose.

Expert witnesses for the prosecution have asserted drugs did not kill Floyd.

Nelson has repeatedly called the bystanders at Floyd’s arrest a “crowd” and “unruly” and suggested there were more people present than seen on camera. He drilled a fire department captain on taking 17 minutes to reach the scene when an ambulance called first arrived much sooner. And he persistently suggested Chauvin’s knee wasn’t on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes, 29 seconds as prosecutors have argued — suggesting instead it was across Floyd’s back, shoulder blades and arm.

“Many times as an attorney, you’ve got some facts that are just … bad for you. But you either want to downplay them or create another narrative,” said Mike Brandt, a Minneapolis defense attorney who is closely watching the case.

Any good defense attorney has to try and “take what you can get,” Brandt said. “Sometimes we say in a trial, you want to throw as much mud on the wall as you can and hope some of it sticks.”

Nelson, 46, handles cases ranging from drunken driving arrests to homicides, and is one of a dozen attorneys who take turns working with a police union legal defense fund to represent officers charged with crimes. One of his bigger cases involved Amy Senser, the wife of Joe Senser, a former Minnesota Vikings tight end, who was convicted in a 2011 hit-and-run death.

Nelson has joked with witnesses at times and, perhaps to connect with the jury, made light of his occasional fumbles with technology or mispronunciations of words. He’s a Minnesota native who, during a break in the trial, chatted up Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, asking whether he remembered the fight song for Minneapolis Roosevelt — the high school both attended.

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