Derek Chauvin Trial: State Requests Modification of Court’s Sentencing Opinion

On July 7, 2021, the State of Minnesota made an unusual request of Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter Cahill: revise its June 25, 2021, Sentencing Memorandum Opinion, but not its 22.5 year sentencing order. The requested change was to include the presence of children at the scene of George Floyd’s murder as an aggravating factor for sentencing.

Rationale for the Request[1]

 The State asserted the following two reasons for this request.

First, the Court said, contrary to laws and common sense,” that the children’s presence should not be an aggravating factor because they “were not forcibly held at the scene or otherwise prevented from leaving.”  However, according to the Attorney General, “The Minnesota Supreme Court has clearly stated that an aggravating factor applies when children witness criminal activity.[Emphasis in Ellison letter.]Children lack the adult capacity for decision-making, including the ability to maturely ‘walk away.’ Moreover, the law does not place the burden on a child to choose between staying—whether to stand witness or in an attempt to aid a victim—or leaving the scene of a crime. For good reason: The responsibility of shielding a child from witnessing a crime should not fall on the child. In other words, a child is akin to a victim when she perceives a horrific event—such as murder—without anything more.”

Moreover, the “State is deeply worried about the message sent by suggesting that instead of attempting to intervene in order to stop a crime—which children did in this case—children should simply walk away and ignore their moral compass. Children should never be put in this position.”

Second, “the State vehemently disagrees with the Court’s factual assertion that the demeanor the children exhibited in the video of  Mr. Floyd’s death indicates that the children were not traumatized. The children’s emotional testimony at trial—including that one of them stays awake at night and another cannot return to Cup Foods—belies that conclusion.”

Third, “the best social science research also supports modifying the opinion’s reliance on the children’s demeanor. . .. [It] ignored the facts that the children courageously confronted Mr. Chauvin and his codefendants –by pleading repeatedly for Mr. Chauvin to remove his knee from Mr. Floyd’s neck so that he could breathe, and by begging Mr. Chauvin and his codefendants to check Mr. Floyd’s pulse [and instead] relied on its observation that the children smiled or giggled at various points during the incident. But that observation is completely immaterial: Children process traumatic experiences in ways that may seem unusual to the untrained eye. Moreover, as social science research demonstrates, for humans of all ages, giggling or smiling can actually be normal responses to stressful experiences. Additionally, and particularly relevant here, research demonstrates that ‘adults view Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like that their white peers.’ This phenomenon of ‘adultification’ is unfortunately common in American society, including the criminal justice system, and has led even careful observers to discount a young Black girl’s trauma.”

Support for these references to social science research was provided in the accompanying Declaration (under Penalty of Perjury) of Sarah Yvonne Vinson, an eminently qualified Triple Board-Certified Child & Adolescent, Adult and Forensic Psychiatrist.[2]

Finally while noting the State’s “utmost respect for the Court, including tis tremendous efforts to reduce implicit bias in this trial,,” the State said the Court’s “discounting the trauma of the children who testified at trial—in an authoritative judicial opinion, no less—will only exacerbate the trauma they have suffered. The Court should correct the public record to avoid that result.”

Conclusion

 This blog previously stated its disagreement with the Court’s rejection of the presence of children as an aggravating factor for sentencing.[3]

The Court also failed to acknowledge the judgment and courage of one of the children—17 year-old- Darnella Frazier—in deciding that day to use her cell phone to make a 10-plus minute video recording of the restraint and murder of Mr. Floyd.[4]

Finally, although not relevant to the Court’s opinion, Frazier’s traumatization unfortunately was further exasperated on July 6, 2021, when her innocent uncle (Leneal Lamont Frazier, age 40,) was killed in a car crash involving a Minneapolis police vehicle that was pursuing another vehicle containing a robbery suspect. Darnella said on FACEBOOK, “MINNEAPOLIS police killed my uncle . . . Another Black man lost his life in the hands of the police. Minneapolis police [have] cost my whole family a big loss. . . today has been a day full of heartbreak and sadness.” Later she added the following clarification to that post: “”I never said the police killed him on purpose. I said it was the police’s fault … The police car is the car that killed my uncle.” She wrote that the police made a bad decision by conducting a high-speed chase through a residential neighborhood, and that bad decision “cost my uncle his life.”[5]

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[1] Letter, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison to Judge Peter Cahill, State v. Chauvin, Court File No.: 27-CR-20-12646 (July 7, 2021); Xiong, Attorney General challenges judge’s characterization of  girls’ reactions at Floyd murder scene, StarTribune (July 8, 2021).

[2] Declaration of Sarah Yvonne Vinson, State v. Chauvin, Court File No.: 27-CR-20-12646 (July 7, 2021).

Click to access MCRO_27-CR-20-12646_Other-Document_2021-07-07_20210708080542.pdf

[3] See these posts to dwekcommetaries.com: Derek Chauvin Trial: Week Four (April 2, 2021); Derek Chauvin Trial: Chauvin Sentenced to 22.5 Years Imprisonment,  (June 28, 2021).

[4] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Witnessing (April 25, 2021); Darnella Frazier’s Continued Witnessing (May 26, 2021); More Honors for Darnella Frazier (June 12, 2021).

[5] Hyatt & Miller, Mourners block street where Minneapolis police car crashed into car during pursuit, killing innocent driver, StarTribune (July 8, 2021); Bela, Darnella Frazier says her uncle was killed by a police car that was chasing a robbery suspect, Wash. Post (July 7, 2021).