MSR exclusive: an interview with Jerry Blackwell

Photo by Ben Garvin Jerry Blackwell

Answering the call of justice

Who is Jerry Blackwell? That question was on the minds of many viewers while watching the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd.

Blackwell, a corporate defense attorney, served as a key member of the State’s prosecution team. He gave the prosecution’s opening statement and the closing rebuttal, lending his warm and plain-spoken style to the legal proceedings to help secure Chauvin’s murder and manslaughter conviction.

The MSR recently had the opportunity to chat with Blackwell at his law firm in downtown Minneapolis. He spoke about who he is, what he stands for, and why it’s important for Blacks to get involved in the legal system.

MSR: As a corporate defense lawyer, what compelled you to join the prosecution team? 

JB: It was beyond being a corporate defense lawyer. It was just a simple fact of being a human being first and having the same reaction a lot of us had seeing what happened to George Floyd and seeing George Floyd in each and every one of us African Americans.

He was and is, to some degree, all of us to the extent that either you were mistreated, excluded, harmed, targeted, or singled out with no accountability because of race.

It struck me as such an outrage to the core that I had a reaction I didn’t even expect, which is to try to do everything you can to try and help bring justice here. It didn’t matter being a corporate defense lawyer, baker or shoemaker. It was time to stand up and be accountable.

MSR: What did you think you could bring to this prosecution team? 

JB: I have tried a lot of cases but usually not in Minnesota. I’m usually everywhere from Honolulu to Alaska—you name it—in the country. I thought I might be able to help in some ways with the strategy for the case of the trial; whether working with themes or helping with witnesses, initially, is what I thought I’d be able to offer.

MSR: Have you joined a prosecution team before?

JB: I have never tried a criminal case in my life. This was the first one.

MSR: Do you remember where you were when you saw the video of George Floyd’s death? How did it impact you?

JB: At home! I first saw the video on a news broadcast that replayed parts of the video and then I went online to see it. It’s where I had the sense of the outrage just seeing it. You’ll see a thing like that and keep wondering, did I miss something? Is it exactly what it looks like? And to me there were not a whole lot of questions that this was a man who was literally suffocated and choked out one breath at a time. I could not see any cause for it.

MSR: Did you find it hard to keep your composure at any point in the trial? How were you able to stay calm?

JB: No, I didn’t find it hard to keep composure during the trial because I was focused during the trial. Ironically, I didn’t expect it, but every time I stepped to the podium, I felt pretty calm talking in front of a jury.

MSR: What was the hardest part about working on this case? 

JB: The hardest part was seeing this man die over and over again. [That] was for me the hardest part. Having the video broken down and seen in detail, then having to decide what aspects to show to the jury. 

MSR: What surprised you most during the trial?

JB: The reaction of the bystanders: I didn’t expect them all to be as emotional as they were. That was a surprise. It wasn’t wrong—I just didn’t know that was going to happen. That was probably the most surprising thing. Most of the things that happened during the trial, including the subtle race element, didn’t surprise me. I expected it.

MSR: Were you surprised at how quickly the verdict was reached? How would you describe how you felt when the verdict was read?

JB: The second thing that surprised me the most was how quick the verdict was read. I was happy for justice when they read the verdict. First and foremost, I was happy for the [Floyd] family. To them the statement of their brother’s life meant something. I was happy for the cause of justice, but oddly enough, I wasn’t celebratory.

This is a tragedy. George Floyd dying is a tragedy. The officer who killed him was involved in the tragedy and when they put the handcuffs on his hands to haul him off to the human warehouse called jail, I don’t really celebrate that.

It’s still another human being that’s being warehoused, and I just can’t celebrate. Even though it was right, and he is being held accountable—as he should be—I still don’t celebrate it any more than I would if it was my own brother.

MSR: Other interviews have highlighted your interest in beekeeping. What attracted you to beekeeping? What is it about bees that fascinate you?

JB: It was first having an intense job as a trial lawyer. So, most of the African American people I met or had met notice they do not see me at clubs, they don’t see me anywhere. Why? Cause I’m always at work all the time. I am looking for ways to have a break or outlet to get away from the law.

Nature was the outlet, and anybody can understand basic things about bees. Start with the male bees and what they do. You would find it interesting, too. Male bees don’t do anything. Never seen one in the flowers ‘cause that’s work—they don’t work. They don’t take care of young bees; that’s working, too. They don’t work; they don’t even sting you. They do only one thing and think that’s the most important. That is what fascinates me.

MSRWhat’s the best way to effect change for African Americans in the legal system?

JB: Getting involved is the best way to effect change for each and every one of us. In any way you can, wherever you are, do the little things you can do or the great things you can do.

In my view, don’t give a lot of thought to whether [it’s] monumental or not because there are all kinds of questions, even after the Chauvin verdict. Is this significant? Is this momentous? Is this an inflection point?

Those kinds of questions to me are abstractly interesting but not to me what the action really is, because I don’t care how you answer it. At the end of the day, we still have to do the work to make progress.

I think that for each and every one of us, the most important thing we can do to make change is to get involved. Look at where you are and what good can you do. Ask yourself the question, are you doing it? Are you just talking about it or what somebody else should do or just complaining about it? If that’s all you’re doing, it’s not moving the brick.

MSR: You co-founded the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers, why is it important for more African Americans to become lawyers?

As both Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela have said, when you stand in the world, it depends on where you have been sitting. As African Americans, we have a special cultural, historical, social, moral, ethical place that we sit, and the stances we take are informed by that history.

It’s the history, I think, that brings real content, more value, and spiritual force to American democracy that has been overwhelmingly contributed to by the experiences of African Americans. [This] brings about equal rights amendments, voting rights, and any number of civil liberties that we celebrate that have come about from sacrifices of African Americans standing up for the African American experiences. 

I think it’s important to have Black lawyers serve as the overseers or traders in the law to try to do our part to make sure the content of the law does not continue to disproportionately exclude and/or oppress African Americans and others as well.

MSR: Last year, you submitted a pardon application for Max Mason, the young Black man wrongly convicted of raping a White woman in Duluth, Minnesota in 1920, which the state’s Board of Pardons unanimously granted. Why did you feel this was important to do at this time?

JB: It was coming upon the 100th year anniversary, the tragedy in Duluth, MN. Ten thousand White Duluthians were involved either directly or implicit in killing these three young Black men and nobody was convicted of murder despite having 10,000 witnesses.

The account of what happened in Duluth was swept under the rug here in Minnesota. It’s not taught in schools. There are White students, White adults that grew up in and around Duluth who had never heard of this. The three young men were killed and put in graves unmarked and were forgotten about until roughly 70 years later.

I and others wanted to bring attention to this tragedy because there is a lot we can learn, even today, about who we are, and nature of our relations from what happened 100 years ago.

We wanted to bring attention to the lynching and wanted to right a wrong that we could right. They sentenced this young man Max Mason to 30 years hard labor in Stillwater prison for this fictitious rape based on a claim made up by this young White woman. We felt that wrong needed to be righted. His name needed to be cleared.

We figured the only way to do that is to seek a posthumous pardon of him. Minnesota had never granted one and I don’t think anyone ever asked.

We did and they had to figure out how to do it and if they could do it. I’m glad the Pardon Board agreed and granted the posthumous pardon for Max Mason.

Derek Chauvin is scheduled to be sentenced for the murder of George Floyd on June 25, 2021, at 1:30 pm at the Hennepin County Government Center.