A Minnesota judge today sentenced former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin to 22.5 years in prison for killing George Floyd on May 25, 2020, an incident that provoked nationwide protests and calls for reform. The 270-month prison term is 10 years longer than the presumptive sentence for the most serious charge against Chauvin. Prosecutors had asked for 30 years, while the defense had recommended probation.
On April 20, a jury convicted Chauvin of second-degree manslaughter, third-degree murder, and unintentional second-degree murder. The maximum punishment for that last charge, which was the most serious count against Chauvin, is 40 years in prison. But the range recommended by Minnesota's sentencing guidelines is 128 to 180 months, with a presumptive sentence of 150 months, or 12.5 years. In a June 2 memorandum and at today's hearing, the prosecution told Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill an upward departure from that range was appropriate in light of four "aggravating factors" that Cahill recognized in a post-trial ruling on May 11:
1. Cahill found that Chauvin "abused a position of trust and authority" by using excessive force against Floyd while assisting Officers J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane, who had arrested Floyd for using a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes. Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck and back, keeping the handcuffed man pinned facedown to the street for nine and a half minutes, even after Floyd repeatedly complained that he was having trouble breathing, even after bystanders warned that Floyd's life was in danger, even after Lane repeatedly suggested that Floyd should be rolled onto his side, even after Floyd stopped talking and became unresponsive, and even after Kueng twice reported that he could not find a pulse.
2. Cahill found that Chauvin treated Floyd "with particular cruelty." The judge said "it was particularly cruel to kill George Floyd slowly by [impeding] his ability to breathe when Mr. Floyd had already made it clear he was having trouble breathing." Although "Floyd was begging for his life and obviously terrified by the knowledge that he was likely to die," Cahill said, Chauvin "objectively remained indifferent to Mr. Floyd's pleas."
3. "Children were present during the commission of the offense," Cahill noted. The witnesses included three 17-year-olds and a 9-year-old.
4. Chauvin "committed the crime as a group with the active participation of at least three other persons," Cahill found. Lane and Keung helped restrain Floyd, while Officer Tou Thao held back the bystanders, preventing them from intervening.
Given these factors, the prosecution told Cahill, a 30-year sentence—twice as long as the upper end of the recommended range—was appropriate. "This is not the typical second-degree unintentional murder," Minnesota Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank said. "This is egregious."
In a June 2 memorandum, Chauvin's lawyer, Eric Nelson, argued that his client was "amenable to probation" because of his age (45), his lack of a prior criminal record, his "history of service" as a Minneapolis police officer for 19 years, his "level of cooperation and attitude in court," and his support from friends and relatives. Alternatively, Nelson said, Cahill should consider a prison sentence shorter than the bottom end of the recommended range.
Nelson's attempt to minimize the seriousness of Chauvin's crime was pretty unpersuasive. "Mr. Chauvin was unaware that he was even committing a crime," he wrote. "In fact, in his mind, he was simply performing his lawful duty in assisting other officers in the arrest of George Floyd….Mr. Chauvin's offense is best described as an error made in good faith reliance [on] his own experience as a police officer and the training he had received—not intentional commission of an illegal act."
But as multiple prosecution witnesses, including the chief of police, testified, Chauvin's prolonged prone restraint of Floyd was not consistent with department policy or "the training [Chauvin] had received." As Cahill noted, Chauvin knew about the risk of positional asphyxia from his "training and experience," and the neck restraint he used "was not a technique that was part of any training by the Minneapolis Police Department and was not an authorized use of force."
Cahill found that Chauvin knelt on Floyd "for an inordinate amount of time," causing a slow death that magnified the cruelty of the assault. In Nelson's view, by contrast, "the assault of Mr. Floyd occurred in the course of a very short time." He said it "involved no threats or taunting," and "there is no evidence that the assault perpetrated by Mr. Chauvin against Mr. Floyd involved a gratuitous infliction of pain or cruelty not usually associated with the commission of the offense in question."
Nelson did not reiterate those arguments at today's hearing. Instead he suggested that "mitigating factors" counterbalanced the "aggravating factors," implying that the sentence should be close to the presumptive term of 12.5 years. Chauvin himself spoke briefly, offering condolences to Floyd's family without mentioning anything that could be seen as a mitigating factor.
Cahill said his decision, which he explained in a 22-page memorandum, was not based on emotion, sympathy, public opinion, or a desire to "send a message." Rather, he said, the upward departure was based on two of the aggravating factors: Chauvin's abuse of trust and the "particular cruelty" of his crime.
Cahill rejected Nelson's argument that invoking the "position of trust" factor against Chauvin was inappropriate. Chauvin "claims that there is 'no case law in Minnesota, precedential or otherwise, in which a peace officer's position' has triggered the application of this aggravating factor," Cahill writes. "While perhaps true, that observation is unsurprising precisely because successful prosecutions of police officers in Minnesota have been so rare; research has not disclosed any prior Minnesota cases in which a police officer was convicted of murder and the State sought an upward sentencing departure." Cahill also rejected Nelson's suggestion that a lack of "threats or taunting" meant Chauvin's assault on Floyd was not "particularly cruel" and Nelson's description of the assault as lasting "a very short time."
Both of those factors, Cahill says, provide "substantial and compelling reasons" for imposing a sentence above the recommended range. But he said he did not consider the presence of children in crafting the sentence, because they were free to leave the scene, were not directly injured, and had not experienced adequately documented psychological trauma.
Cahill also did not consider the three other officers' participation in Chauvin's crime. Noting that the sentencing guidelines refer to other "offenders," he concludes that not enough evidence was presented during Chauvin's trial to apply that label to Kueng, Lane, and Thao.
[This post has been updated with material from Cahill's sentencing memorandum.]
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