Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill said during Friday's hearing that he would leave most of his commentary to a 22-page filing that would accompany his order, but noted that sentencing "is a legal determination."
"What the sentence is not based on is emotion or sympathy," he said. "But at the same time, I want to acknowledge the deep and tremendous pain all the families are feeling, especially the Floyd family."
Judge Cahill added 10 years to the 12.5-year recommended sentence under state guidelines, telling Chauvin the increase was because of "your abuse of a position of trust and authority, and also the particular cruelty shown to George Floyd."
In May 2020, during Floyd's arrest for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill at a store, Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes as Floyd begged him to stop, said he couldn't breathe and eventually lost consciousness. The death of a Black man at the hands of a white police officer was captured on police body cam footage and by bystanders recording with their cellphones, providing a great deal of evidence during April's murder trial.
That three-week trial was painful for the Floyd family to watch, the victim's brother Philonise Floyd testified at the sentencing hearing.
"I have had to sit through each day of officer Derek Chauvin's trial and watch the video of George dying, for hours, over and over again. For an entire year, I had to relive George being tortured to death every hour of the day," he said through tears. "My family and I have been given a life sentence. We will never be able to get George back."
The court also heard from Floyd's 7-year-old daughter, Gianna, who said she asks about her father all the time; his nephew, Brandon Williams, who said his uncle's death "fully traumatized" his family; and another brother, Terrence, who suggested that had the victim been white and the defendant Black, the case "would've been open and shut" and there would be no talk of "more slaps on the wrist." The Floyd family asked the judge to give Chauvin the maximum sentence of 40 years.
Chauvin's mother also testified, asking for leniency and saying her son had been demonized in the media and that "the public will never know the loving and caring man he is, but his family does." Chauvin's attorney, Eric Nelson of Halberg Criminal Defense, told the judge that his client is haunted by "what ifs" — what if he hadn't volunteered to work that day, what if he hadn't responded to that call.
Chauvin himself said he couldn't speak at length because of "additional legal matters at hand," but expressed his condolences to the Floyd family members and promised they would eventually get "some information" that would be "of interest."
In April, a Minnesota state jury convicted the former police officer of all three counts filed against him: second-degree murder, third-degree murder and third-degree manslaughter.
Those charges arise from the same event, so Judge Cahill could only sentence Chauvin on the highest charge, second-degree murder, which carries a statutory maximum sentence of 40 years. But because Chauvin had no criminal record, the state sentencing guidelines recommended a range from 10.5 years to 15 years, with a presumed sentence of 12.5 years.
Chauvin sought time served and probation in a filing earlier this month, citing his "background, his lack of criminal history, his amenability to probation ... the unusual facts of this case, and ... his being a product of a 'broken' system." His sentencing memorandum noted that as a former police officer, Chauvin would be a target in prison, and argued that because he attended all his court appearances while out on bond and had family support, he was a good candidate for probation.
Prosecutors sought an upward departure from the sentencing guidelines, arguing that five aggravating factors warranted more prison time. In May, Judge Cahill sided with the prosecution on four of those factors, finding that Chauvin abused his authority as an officer, that he acted with particular cruelty toward Floyd, that three other officers aided in Floyd's murder, and that the crime was committed in the presence of children, the youngest of whom was 9. The judge did not agree with prosecutors' contention that Floyd was "particularly vulnerable."
Based on those findings, prosecutors sought a 30-year sentence for Chauvin, arguing in a June memorandum that while "no sentence can undo the damage [the] defendant's actions have inflicted," the court ought to hold Chauvin "fully accountable for his reprehensible conduct."
They noted that 30 years was double the high end of the guideline sentence, and cited prior state Supreme Court case law sanctioning double the recommended sentence when aggravating factors are at play.
Assistant Minnesota Attorney General Matthew Frank made note of that during the hearing Friday.
"The Supreme Court in our state has said very recently that even one aggravating factor is sufficient to go twice the top of the range," he said. "Here, we have four."
But that case — last year's State v. Barthman decision — left room for even higher sentences. The justices found that "there are rare cases in which the facts are so unusually compelling that a greater-than-double durational departure is justified," and noted the state's high court has previously "affirmed greater-than-double durational departures when multiple aggravating factors are present."
It's likely that prosecutors with the Minnesota Attorney General's Office decided not to pursue the maximum 40-year sentence because it wanted its request to seem reasonable, according to University of Minnesota Law School professor Richard Frase, co-director of the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice.
"Judges almost never impose the maximum, and if the state asked for the max they would lose credibility with the judge, and lose the chance to persuade the judge to impose a particular severe-but-not-max sentence," Frase said in an email.
Prosecutors, who like to maintain "institutional capital," may have also been thinking of their long-term credibility before the state bench, according to Fordham University School of Law professor Youngjae Lee. They may have also wanted to reserve higher sentences for intentional killings — Chauvin's conviction did not hinge on intent to kill — and for defendants with prior criminal records.
The 30-year sentence request also shows how prosecutors are torn between two roles, according to Lee. They may want to win the highest sentence possible to counteract the defense, but they're also supposed to "come up with the right answer from a justice perspective," Lee said.
"The government and the defense lawyer are situated differently," he said. "Prosecutors are not exactly supposed to be adversarial; they're supposed to be doing the right thing. But they are situated in an adversarial system, where the defense lawyers will ask for the thing that really favors the client, and so I think there's some pressure to be adversarial in kind. So you end up with the state asking for fairly high sentences but with some constraints."
--Editing by Jill Coffey.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the relationship between Chauvin's sentence and the jury's finding that he had a "depraved mind" during Floyd's murder. The error has been corrected.
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