For Ellison, Floyd case brings pressure -- and opportunity

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FILE - In this June 5, 2018, file photo, Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress and a top official with the Democratic National Committee, files to run for Minnesota attorney general at the Secretary of State's office in St. Paul, Minn. Ellison is now the Minnesota attorney general who is taking over as lead prosecutor in George Floyd's death. Doing so is giving Ellison a national platform to talk about race in America. And while Ellison is careful not to talk about details of the criminal cases against four Minneapolis police officers, he's grabbing the opportunity to raise issues about police reform that he's worked on in the past. (Lacy Young//Minnesota Public Radio via AP, File)

MINNEAPOLIS – Keith Ellison has been a civil rights activist, a defense attorney, a cable-TV favorite, a rabble-rouser in Congress, a party operator and an occasional provocateur on Twitter.

But he’s only rarely been a prosecutor — until now.

The Minnesota attorney general is at the helm of the George Floyd murder case, certain to be among the most scrutinized in the country and already the flashpoint behind an emerging national movement to root out racism in the criminal justice system.

Ellison, the first African American elected to his job, is now tasked with nothing less than making that system work.

Expectations are high, with many people finding it hard to imagine a failure to convict the four officers charged in Floyd's death.

“What we need is accountability from a top lawyer like Keith Ellison to put these cops in jail. Keith can get the job done,” said Clarence Castile, a Minnesota advocate for police reform whose nephew, Philando Castile, was killed by an officer in 2016. “Goddamn it, he better get the job done.”

Ellison has made clear he feels the pressure. He repeatedly warns that “winning a conviction will be hard" and notes he'll leave the prosecuting to lawyers experienced in securing convictions. Still, he's seized on his role overseeing the prosecution to make himself the public face of the case and a central voice in a national conversation.

“This is a soul search for the whole nation,” Ellison said in a recent Associated Press interview.