Judge Finds Chauvin Qualifies For Longer Prison Sentence

A Minnesota state court judge found Wednesday that the murder of George Floyd met several of the factors necessary to sentence former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin to a longer-than-average prison term.

A jury convicted Chauvin last month of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, which carry sentences of up to 40 years, up to 25 years and up to 10 years, respectively.

Chauvin would only face a sentence for the most serious charge, since all of his convictions stemmed from the same act. And because he has no prior criminal record, state guidelines would recommend a prison term of about 12 1/2 years.

But prosecutors sought a lengthier sentence, citing five factors they said merited an upward departure from the guidelines. They claim Chauvin abused his position of trust and authority as a police officer, that he treated George Floyd with "particular cruelty," that children witnessed the crime, that Chauvin worked in concert with three other people, and that George Floyd was "particularly vulnerable."

Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter Cahill sided with prosecutors on all but the last of those factors in an order that came down Wednesday. He found Chauvin betrayed his role of trust by using unreasonable and lethal force and was aided in that act by three other officers — two who helped restrain Floyd and a third who kept bystanders away, preventing them from rendering medical aid.

Four children, the youngest of whom was 9 years old, witnessed Floyd's death. And, the judge found, Chauvin cruelly "remained indifferent to Mr. Floyd's pleas."

"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," the judge wrote. "The prolonged nature of the asphyxiation was by itself particularly cruel."

But the judge wasn't convinced Floyd was "particularly vulnerable" at the time of his death. Prosecutors had argued Floyd was intoxicated, outnumbered and handcuffed, but the judge noted that three officers had been unable to force Floyd to get into the back of a squad car prior to his death.

Chauvin killed Floyd last Memorial Day during his arrest for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store. Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes as Floyd, who lay handcuffed face-down on the street, begged Chauvin to stop, said he couldn't breathe and eventually lost consciousness.

Millions viewed a bystander's video of the killing, and the image of a Black man gasping for breath under the knee of a white police officer sparked nationwide racial justice protests last summer.

How Wednesday's findings affect Chauvin's sentence will be revealed at a sentencing hearing currently scheduled for June.

Judge Cahill's verdict served as a factual finding under the U.S. Supreme Court's Blakely v. Washington standard. That 2004 case found a defendant can't be sentenced for longer than guidelines recommend based on considerations that haven't been decided by a jury. But those factual findings were up to Judge Cahill to decide because at the close of trial, Chauvin waived his right to have the jury that eventually convicted him decide his sentence.

Last month's guilty verdict indicated prosecutors convinced jurors that Chauvin used an unreasonable amount of force for too long and should have known he was killing Floyd.

The defense had argued Chauvin used a reasonable amount of force because Floyd was resisting arrest, and that Floyd didn't die because of Chauvin's actions but due to a host of other reasons, like chronic heart disease, drug addiction, carbon monoxide poisoning from a nearby tailpipe and a rare tumor that may have secreted adrenaline.

During the trial, jurors heard from traumatized bystanders who witnessed Floyd's last breaths, people who knew Floyd and spoke about his life, medical experts who opined on what caused his death, as well as policing experts who testified about whether Chauvin acted appropriately.

Jurors also watched Floyd's death many times from several different angles, captured by four police body cameras, bystanders who shot cellphone videos and a security camera feed.

To convict Chauvin of second-degree murder, the jury had to find that he killed Floyd while committing felony assault. And to prove assault, the prosecution had to show Chauvin's use of force was criminal — not within the legal bounds of his powers of arrest as an on-duty officer.

For the third-degree murder charge, the prosecution had to prove to the jury that Chauvin was acting with "a depraved mind." And for second-degree manslaughter, prosecutors had to prove his "culpable negligence" in putting Floyd at risk.

Chauvin requested a new trial last week, arguing in a court filing that Judge Cahill had abused his discretion, particularly when he refused to change the venue for the proceedings or to sequester the jury. Chauvin also alleged the jury "committed misconduct, felt threatened or intimidated, felt race-based pressure during the proceedings, and/or failed to adhere to instructions during deliberations."

In a statement, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said he was glad that the court agreed with his team's assessment of aggravating factors. 

"The particular cruelty of Derek Chauvin's conduct, his abuse of authority with his fellow officers and the impact of this crime on the minors who had to witness it require a sentence that holds Mr. Chauvin sufficiently accountable," he said.

Chauvin's attorney declined to comment.

The state of Minnesota is represented by Attorney General Keith Ellison along with Matthew Frank and Erin Eldridge of the Minnesota Attorney General's Office, Jerry Blackwell of Blackwell Burke PA, and Steven Schleicher of Maslon LLP.

Chauvin is represented by Eric Nelson of Halberg Criminal Defense.

The case is State of Minnesota vs. Derek Chauvin, case number 27-CR-20-12646, in Hennepin County District Court.

--Additional reporting by Hailey Konnath. Editing by Philip Shea.

Update: This story has been updated to include a statement from the Minnesota attorney general and Chauvin's attorney declining to comment.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.



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