Derek Chauvin Trial: Chauvin Sentenced to 22.5 Years Imprisonment           

                                                                                                                               On June 25, Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter Cahill entered the following order, “ As to Count I, based on the verdict of the jury finding you guilty of unintentional second-degree murder while committing a felony under Minn. Stat. sec. 609.19, subd. 2(1), it is the judgment of the Court that you now stand convicted of that offense. Pursuant to Minn. Stat. sec. 609.04, Counts II and III remain unadjudicated as they are lesser offenses of Count I.”

Therefore, the “Court commits . . . [Derek Chauvin] to the custody of the Commissioner of Corrections for a period of 270 months [22.5 years]. You are granted credit for 199 days already served.”[1]

With this sentence, the  Minnesota Department of Corrections has said that if Chauvin qualifies by good behavior in prison, he would be released from prison on December 10, 2035, which will be when Chauvin is 59 years old, followed by supervised parole until June 8, 2043.

Court’s Opinion Regarding This Sentence[2]

Judge Cahill first reviewed the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines, which were promulgated “to establish rational and consistent sentencing standards the promote public safety, reduce sentencing disparity, and ensure that the sanctions imposed . . . are proportional to the severity of the . . . offense and the offender’s criminal history.”  The Guidelines also establish “presumptive ranges” for the offenses and for most cases, the maximum sentence that may be imposed is at the top of that range.

However, the Guidelines also recognize that there are cases when the guidelines may not be appropriate and that a different sentence may be imposed for “substantial and compelling circumstances,” i.e., when the “defendant’s conduct in the offense . . . was significantly more or less serious than that typically involved in the commission of the crime in question.” (Emphasis in original quotation of Minnesota Supreme Court case.)

Here, the presumptive range of a sentence for second-degree murder is 128 to 180 months with a presumptive sentence of 150 months (12.5 years). To deviate from these guidelines, the court (or jury) must find that there were one or more “aggravating factors” in the crime at issue. Here, the court determined that there were two such “aggravating factors”: Chauvin abused a position of trust and authority and Chauvin treated Mr. Floyd with particular cruelty.

Although the court previously had concluded there were two other aggravating factors–children were present during the commission of the crime and Chauvin committed the crime with the active participation of three other former Minneapolis policemen—Judge Cahill for various reasons declined to use them for determining the sentence.

Judge Cahill then sought “to effectuate the Minnesota guidelines policy of reducing sentencing disparity” by examining Minnesota sentences over that last ten years for murder in the second-degree. For all such sentences, 67% were within the presumptive guidelines range while 20% were upward departures and 13% were downward departures. Moreover, the most common aggravated sentence has been 240 months (20 years) while the average aggravated departure for defendants with a zero criminal history score [like Chauvin] was 278.2 month (23.2 years).

Therefore, the court concluded, “Mr. Chauvin, rather than pursuing the MPD mission [to give citizens ‘voice and respect’], treated Mr. Floyd without respect and denied him the dignity owed to all human beings and which he certainly would have extended to a friend or neighbor. In the Court’s view, 270 months, which amounts to an additional ten years over the presumptive 150-month sentence, is the appropriate sentence.” In other words, “In consideration of all the facts presented at trial, this Court’s experience, and the collective experience of the entire Court over the last ten years, the Court finds the appropriate prison sentence for Mr. Chauvin is 270 months.”

This opinion demonstrates Judge Cahill’s careful attention to factual and legal details. The only part that is questionable, in this blogger’s opinion, is his refusal to consider for sentencing his previous conclusion that another aggravating factors was  the presence of children. Compare his previous conclusion on this factors with his stated rationale for not considering it for sentencing:

  • Sentencing conclusion. “Although four young women were present and observed portions of the nine and a half minutes restraint of Mr. Floyd, none was injured or threatened with physical injury so long as they did not interfere; none had been present during the previous police struggle to get Mr. Floyd into a squad car, were free to leave the scene at any time, they did not know any of the officers or Mr. Floyd and at trial did not present any objective indicia of trauma.”
  • Previous conclusion. “Children were present on the sidewalk adjoining Chicago Avenue standing only a few feet from where . . . [Chauvin] and the other officers were restraining George Floyd prone in the street and observed Mr. Floyd being asphyxiated as he begged for his life.. . . Although these four children did not observe all the events, they did observe a substantial portion of the . . .[Chauvin’s] use of force and witnesses the last moments of Mr. Floyd’s life.”

This sentencing conclusion, in this blogger’s opinion, is weak in light of  the trial testimony of then 17-year-old Darnella Frazier: “When I look at George Floyd I look at my dad, I look at my brothers, I look at my cousins, my uncles because they are all Black,” she said. “I have a Black father, I have Black brothers, I have Black friends. I look at them and how it could have been one of them. It’s been nights I’ve stayed up apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life, it’s not what I should have done it’s what he [Chauvin] should have done.” Another 17-year-old girl testified at trial,  “It was difficult because I felt like there wasn’t really anything I could do. As a bystander I was powerless there, and I was failing to do anything.”

The court’s refusal to consider for sentencing the other aggravating factor of Chauvin’s committing the crime with the assistance of others, however, was justified given the statute’s requirement for sentencing that the others be “offenders,”  which has not yet been established with their trial scheduled for this August

Sentencing Hearing[3]

At the June 25 hearing, before the Court imposed the above sentence, the Court heard victim impact statements from members of the Floyd family (seven-year-old daughter Gianna, brothers Terrance and Philonise and nephew Brandon Williams), and Chauvin’s mother (Carolyn Pawlenty).

Derek Chauvin also made the following statement. “At this time due to some additional legal matters at hand, I’m not able to give a full, formal statement at this time. Briefly though, I do want to give my condolences to the Floyd family. There’s going to be some other information in the future that would be of interest, and I hope things will give you some peace of mind. Thank you.” (Emphases added.)

No further information was provided as to what this future information will be, but the only thing this blogger can think of that would be of some comfort to the Floyd family would be an overall agreement among Chauvin and the federal and Minnesota prosecutors for Chauvin to plead guilty to all charges and to abandon any appeal from this guilty verdict and judgment in exchange for an agreed sentence to a federal detention facility.

In addition, at this hearing, Assistant Minnesota Attorney General Matthew Frank and defense attorney Erik Nelson made short statements in support of their requested sentences (30 years by the State and probation and parole by the defense).

At the conclusion of the hearing, Judge Cahill said the sentence was “not based on public opinion. I am not basing it on any attempt to send any messages. The job of a trial judge is to apply the law to specific facts.”

Court’s Order Denying Two Defendant’s Motions[4]

 On June 24 (the day before the hearing), the Court denied Chauvin’s motions for a new trial and for a Schwartz hearing to investigate the jury’s conduct during the trial.  Those denials followed from the following findings of fact and conclusions of law by the court:

  1. “Defendant has failed to demonstrate that the Court abused its discretion or committed error that Defendant was deprived of his constitutional right to a fair trial.”
  2. “Defendant has failed to demonstrate that the State engaged in prosecutorial misconduct such that Defendant was deprived of his constitutional right to a fair trial.”
  3. “Defendant has failed to establish a prima facie case of juror misconduct or that a juror gave false testimony during voir dire to warrant an evidentiary hearing pursuant to Schwarz v. Minneapolis Suburban Bus Co. . . . [and] State v. Ussee. . . .”

Commentary About the Sentencing[5]

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison in a statement published by the Washington Post said, “Chauvin is one of the few police officers ever convicted of murder for a death on the job. Chauvin’s 22½-year sentence, announced Friday, is one of the longest any police officer in the United States has received in modern times for the death of a civilian.”

“But one exceptional case does not solve the problem. Can this conviction help us finally break the cycle of inaction once and for all?”

“It depends whether we act.”

“Prosecutors must act.”

“Prosecutors must commit to vigorous, visible and swift prosecutions of in-custody deaths when there is probable cause that the use of force was unlawful. They should not be afraid to use all the tools the law puts at their disposal. The visibility of prosecutions, to restore and build credibility with the public, is as important as the vigor employed.”

“The Justice Department must also be a partner in prosecuting cases when local prosecutions fail to win convictions — or fail to act. The Biden administration’s return to conducting investigations into biased policing patterns and practices is also welcome.”

“Prosecutions must also be swift. Chauvin was convicted less than a year after he took Floyd’s life. By contrast, it took four years from the death of Laquan McDonald for Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke to be convicted. We cannot possibly build public trust if we allow prosecutions to take this long.”

“Lawmakers must act.”

“Congress must pass the strongest version of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act it can pass. Don’t wait for the perfect bill when a meaningful first step is within reach. Remember: the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 were passed after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Enduring, systemic change takes time.”

“At the state level, legislatures should authorize attorneys general to conduct investigations into local law enforcement to bring to light any persistent patterns of misconduct within a given police department. State-based pattern-or-practice investigations — which critically involve both community members and police officers — have proved successful. If states don’t do that, Congress should make it possible for attorneys general to rely on federal authority to conduct these investigations.”

“City councils and county boards must support reform-minded law enforcement leaders and, if necessary, use the power of the purse to compel reform by directing money toward progressive training and holding leadership accountable for outcomes. We must also recognize that, too often, we ask police officers to solve problems they are neither trained nor intended to solve. We must provide people in crisis with comprehensive social services that law enforcement cannot provide, and we must also support officer wellness.”

“Law enforcement must act.”

“Police leadership must be empowered to take meaningful action. Rather than punishing good officers who call out their colleagues’ bad behavior, as sometimes occurs, police departments should celebrate them and commend their service.”

“The Chauvin trial produced some remarkable, even astonishing, moments, with multiple police officers testifying for the prosecution, and with the police chief, in full uniform, testifying that the defendant’s behavior was not a reasonable use of force in line with department policy. Such testimony should become commonplace, not remain a rarity.”’

“This isn’t about creating a culture of ‘snitching” — it’s about creating a culture of accountability that sets and enforces clear professional standards that protect both police officers and community members.”

“Finally, communities must act.”

“It is imperative that communities keep up the pressure for reform and accountability, and finally end the cycle of inaction. My office could not have led the prosecution of Chauvin without the help of ordinary people who courageously bore witness to Floyd’s death, and the pressure from a community that demanded accountability and action.”

President Joe Biden. At the White House on June 25, President Biden responded to a reporter’s question about the sentencing with this comment: “I don’t know all the circumstances that were considered but it seems to me, under the guidelines, that seems to be appropriate.”

Washington Post Editorial. An editorial in the Washington Post said Chauvin’s conviction and sentencing “should bring a measure of satisfaction that justice was served and assure Americans that the system is not hopelessly broken.”

But more broadly , “Policing in the United States could be more effective and less threatening to minority communities. Officers who commit wrongdoings could face more certain punishments. Floyd’s death last spring appeared to spur a reckoning on U.S. policing, but that momentum has slowed in recent months.”

For example, a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill so far has failed to pass in the U.S. Congress. The House of Representatives in March passed a sweeping police reform bill, but Republican opposition in the Senate appears to doom that bill.

Experts’ Reactions. Although the Chauvin case could lead to better police hiring and training, more trust between police and communities and make the public and future jurors more reception to complaints about police interactions with minorities, this case “ doesn’t address deep-rooted issues of race and violence affecting police interactions with minorities [and does not] . . . result in charges or convictions against officers, according to Sheila A.Bedi, a professor at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, Director of its Community Justice & Civil Rights Clinic and an attorney in use-of-force lawsuits against the Chicago Police Department.

Another professor of criminal justice, Philip Stinson of Bowling Green State University, pointed out that since 2005 only 11 non-federal law officers, including Chauvin, have been convicted of murder for on-duty conduct, the nine who were sentenced before Chauvin received sentences ranging from six years to life behind bars with the median being 15 years.

Floyd Family Attorney’s Reaction. Ben Crump, the attorney for the Floyd family, called for a federal conviction of Chauvin that might lead to a longer sentence.

Conclusion

We now wait to see the results of any appeal of this conviction and sentencing by Chauvin; the results of the August trial of the other three ex-officers in state court and any subsequent appeals; developments in the federal court criminal cases against the four ex-policemen; and the details of any guilty plea agreements by any or all of the four men.[6]

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[1] Sentencing Order and Memorandum Opinion, State v. Chauvin, Hennepin County District Court, Dist. Ct. , File No. 27-CR-20-12646 (June 25, 2021); Derek Chauvin Trial:  Week Seven (Conviction), dwkcommentaries.com (April 21, 2021).

[2] Ibid; Derek Chauvin Trial: Week Four, dwkcommentaries.com (April 2, 2021). Derek Chauvin Trial: Court finds Aggravating Factors for Sentencing, dwkcommentaries.com (May 12, 2021); Derek Chauvin Trial: Arguments About Sentencing of Chauvin, dwkcommentaries.com (June 7, 2021); Derek Chauvin Trial: Issues for Sentencing, dwkcommentaries.com (June 18, 2021);

[3] Olson, Xioing & Walsh, Chauvin Sentenced to 22 ½ years for the murder of George Floyd, StarTribune (June 26, 2021).

[4] State v. Chauvin, Hennepin County District Court, Dist. Ct. File 27-CR-20-12646 (June 24, 2021); AP. Judge rejects Chauvin request for new trial in Floyd death, Wash. Post (June 25, 2021); Xiong, Former officer Derek Chauvin faces sentencing Friday afternoon; judge denies defense motion for new trial, StarTribune (June 25, 2021); Derek Chauvin Trial: Defendant’s Motion for New Trial and Impeachment of Verdict, dwkcommentaries.com (May 5 2021).

[5]  Ellison, Opinion: Derek Chauvin is going to prison. Let this be a turning point, Wash. Post (June 26, 2021); Goodnough, Biden calls long prison sentence for Derek Chauvin ‘appropriate,’ N.Y. Times (June 25, 2021); Editorial, Opinion: Derek Chauvin is headed to prison. But that is not enough, Wash. Post (June 25, 2021); Webber (AP), Experts: Impact of Chauvin case on policing yet to be seen, Wash. Post (June 26, 2021); Assoc. Press, Floyd family lawyer calls for federal conviction for Chauvin, Wash. Post (June 25, 2021).

[6] This blog has covered all of the details in these cases and intends to continue doing so. (See List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: George Floyd Killing.

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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