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Lawyers: Police, State Willing To Take On Misconduct

Nelson and Chauvin
Defense attorney Eric Nelson, left, and defendant, former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, right, listen as Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill presides Friday, April 9, 2021, in Minneapolis.

Since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police last May, communities across the country have grappled with how a similar encounter might be handled by local authorities.

In a recent interview with WGLT, Bloomington attorneys Josh Rinker and Jeff Brown talked about McLean County’s history of charging police officers accused of breaking the law. Both defense lawyers previously worked as prosecutors in the McLean County State’s Attorney’s Office.

People may think of the relationship between police and prosecutors as fraternal, said Rinker, “and that you don’t cross that line.”

“However, in McLean County, you just have to look at the history of the last few years to see that, in this county, there’s a clear line – even if you’re a police officer – that if the state’s attorney’s office believes they have probable cause you’ve committed a felony offense, they’re going to charge you,” said Rinker, an attorney with Finegan, Rinker and Ghrist.

Brown points to the 2006 arrest of former Bloomington police officer Jeff Pelo as an example of the willingness of McLean County authorities to investigate and prosecute one of their own. Pelo is serving 375 years for sexually assaulting four women and stalking a fourth.

“There was no one from the police department getting behind Pelo. He was friends with a lot of police officers, and he was one of the team until they figured out what he was doing,” said Brown.

Former McLean County State’s Attorney Bill Yoder charged Pelo with more than 30 counts related to the assaults of women in their homes. Mark Messman and Sandy Thompson handled the lengthy, complex trial.

“A lot of prosecutors lost a lot of weight that year, but everybody went at it 100%,” Brown said of the Pelo trial.

Charges also have been filed in recent years against a McLean County deputy and a Normal police officer related to thefts.

As the world watches the murder trial Derek Chauvin unfold in a Minnesota courtroom, the opinions of his guilt or innocence are based in large part on video depicting Floyd’s final moments.  Video from officer’s body worn cameras and bystanders’ cell phones offer a disturbing account of the crime scene.

As a defense lawyer, Rinker said he welcomes video evidence.

“It’s always my position that the more evidence I have, the less guesswork we have to do about what happened. We can still argue the interpretation of what that video shows, but it eliminates so much ambiguity,” said Rinker.

Local law enforcement also supports the availability of video, said Rinker, “because no more can there be these allegations that something happened when it did not.”

Both attorneys acknowledged a concern about the potential for clashes during police encounters in the current political climate. Tensions can run high on both sides since the killing of Floyd, who was Black, by the white police officer, said Rinker.

“My personal concern is that we are raising the tensions for each of these interactions, whereas it may not have been there before. Are we perceiving slights that don’t exist on both sides, from law enforcement as well as a potential subject? I don’t know, but that would be my concern. Are we creating a powder keg that is meant to bust?” said Rinker.  

Local officers have expressed their frustration since Floyd’s death, said Brown.

“What I’m hearing is, it’s made a difficult job even more difficult,” said Brown, who operates the Brown Law Office.

With half of the Chauvin jury identified as Black or multiracial, the panel is notably diverse. The potential for similar diversity in McLean County is unlikely, said Rinker and Brown.

“The traditional pool I’ve had to select from, whether or not my client was African American, has been predominately Caucasian,” said Rinker, adding most McLean County jury pools may include one or two minorities.

The makeup of juries in Minneapolis and McLean County is a reflection of local demographics, said Rinker.

The large number of minority jurors in the Chauvin case runs counter to what prosecutors normally seek on juries, said Brown. Having more Black jurors could be helpful to the state, he said, “because minorities have experienced or are more likely to have an experience with a more aggressive police officer.”

Rinker and Brown try to catch portions of the trial that is expected to last several more weeks.

“It is exciting and interesting. But a lot of it is similar to something we deal with on a regular basis,” said Brown.

“It’s the hot topic right now. So it’s what we’re paying attention to,” said Rinker.

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Edith began her career as a reporter with The DeWitt County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. From 2007 to June 2019, Edith covered crime and legal issues for The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Pantagraph covering courts and local government issues in central Illinois.