Chauvin judge: Tougher sentence justified in Floyd's murder

Derek Chauvin is taken into custody
In this image from video, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is taken into custody as his attorney Eric Nelson, left, watches, after his bail was revoked after he was found guilty on all three counts in his trial for the 2020 death of George Floyd, Tuesday, April 20, 2021, at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis.
Screengrab of Court TV

Updated 12:52 p.m.

Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill has found aggravating factors that would justify a tougher sentence for Derek Chauvin, including treating George Floyd with “cruelty” that resulted in his “slow death.” 

The former Minneapolis police officer was convicted of murder and manslaughter last month in Floyd’s killing.

Cahill wrote in a court filing made public Wednesday morning that Chauvin abused his authority as a police officer when he pinned Floyd to the ground for more than nine minutes and ignored bystanders’ pleas to render medical aid.

Chauvin's sentencing is scheduled for June 25.

Minnesota sentencing guidelines call for a sentence of about 12 1/2 years in prison for someone with no criminal history. But prosecutors had asked Cahill to consider a longer sentence because of what they contended were aggravating factors at play.

The new ruling means the judge could, but isn’t required, to sentence Chauvin to more prison time, according to Mitchell Hamline School of Law adjunct professor and attorney Angela Porter. 

Although Chauvin was convicted of three charges of murder and manslaughter, it’s presumed that he’ll serve the sentences at the same time, meaning he serves prison time for the top charge.

The statutory maximum for second-degree murder is 40 years, but Porter said that sentence is unlikely in this case. She said there could be mitigating factors in the pre-sentence investigation report, which is being created for the judge. 

“This is sort of where we get into uncharted territory just given how unique this case is, given the particular cruelty that we all witnessed in that Facebook video,” Porter said. “I do think we’ll see a hefty sentence, but I don’t think it’s going to be at the statutory maximum.” 

Other factors that judges weigh could be whether Chauvin expresses remorse for his actions, victim impact statements or even letters of support attesting to Chauvin’s character.  

“At the hearing, Derek Chauvin could get up and give his take, he can talk to the judge, he can express remorse, and that tends to be a key calculation for judges. Sometimes defendants get up there and they don’t seem genuine. Other times they don’t speak, and through their conduct, seem like they’re not remorseful.” 

Judge’s reasoning

Cahill said the facts supported an upwards sentencing departure due to four factors. They include that Chauvin “treated George Floyd with particular cruelty” and that “children were present during the commission of the offense” including three 17-year-olds and one 9-year-old.

Cahill wrote that Chauvin was trusted to treat members of the community with respect and to use only reasonable force but instead used unreasonable force that a Hennepin County jury found was excessive and caused the death of Floyd.

He added that Chauvin knew from his training that the way he had Floyd pinned would cause positional asphyxia.

“The slow death of George Floyd occurring over approximately six minutes of his positional asphyxia was particularly cruel in that Mr. Floyd was begging for his life and obviously terrified by the knowledge that he was likely to die,” Cahill wrote, “but during which the defendant objectively remained indifferent to Mr. Floyd’s pleas.”

One of the officers involved in the arrest raised concerns about Floyd’s condition and suggested turning him on his side to give him room to breathe. But Chauvin ignored his suggestion and refused the aid of a Minneapolis firefighter and paramedic. 

The fourth factor Cahill found is that Chauvin committed a crime as part of a group, with three other officers, Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao, involved in the arrest. They are scheduled to go on trial in Hennepin County District Court in August. 

All of the officers are also facing criminal civil rights charges in federal court.  

“Defendant’s placement of his knee on the back of George Floyd’s neck was an egregious abuse of the authority to subdue and restrain because the prolonged use of this maneuver was employed after George Floyd had already been handcuffed and continued for more than four and a half minutes after Mr. Floyd had ceased talking and had become unresponsive,” Cahill wrote.

Another factor that prosecutors had requested Cahill consider was that Floyd was particularly vulnerable when he was killed. Cahill said although Floyd was in handcuffs, that didn’t prevent him from initially resisting arrest.

The judge said the vulnerability factor was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt, meaning he won’t take that into account when he sentences Chauvin.

What’s next for the remaining officers

The three other former officers involved in Floyd’s death are charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.

They’re scheduled to go on trial in August, but former officer Thomas Lane’s attorney is appearing for a pre-trial hearing Thursday. 

Porter said the judge stated clearly in the decision that he’s not making a finding as to whether the other officers’ participation means they’re subject to criminal liability. 

“It’s kind of splitting hairs on the legal side to say, ‘Yeah, we determined they participated, but whether they’re criminally liable is an open question,” Porter said. “That kind of insulates them from at least legally being implicated because of this finding. However, they have to be considering this, absolutely.”

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