How Chauvin’s Sentence Was Reached

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Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin addresses his sentencing hearing and the judge as he awaits his sentence after being convicted of murder in the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn., June 25, 2021. (Still image from video/Pool via Reuters)

The 22-and-a-half-year sentence that Minneapolis judge Peter Cahill imposed on former police officer Derek Chauvin this afternoon for the unintentional murder of George Floyd was about what was expected.

That count, technically second-degree murder, was the count with the most severe potential sentence, 40 years by statute. Due to some quirks in sentencing law, Chauvin faced 30 years as a practical matter, and that was what prosecutors sought. Under Minnesota law, the other two related charges, which carry less-severe maximums — third-degree “depraved indifference” murder and second-degree manslaughter — were subsumed into the top count.

As Rich and I discussed in the podcast today (in talking about the Capitol riot charges), the statutory exposure is a broad range that applies to any conceivable offender, from the hardened criminal to the person for whom the crime is an aberration in an otherwise law-abiding life. More consequential are the sentencing guidelines, which apply to the specific offender, based on aspects of offense conduct and criminal history. In the case of Chauvin, a first offender, the guidelines called for a sentence of about twelve and a half years.

In addition to that, however, the prosecutors asked for judicial findings on exacerbating factors — Chauvin’s abuse of his position of trust, the unusual cruelty of his treatment of Floyd, and the fact that the action was witnessed by children. Judge Cahill duly found that all of these factors were present. That opened the door for him to exceed the guidelines range.

Most informed observers figured that this would add about a decade to the guidelines sentencing recommendation. That would be a strong nod in the state’s direction, while still factoring in Chauvin’s lack of criminal history and the fact that the encounter, at least at the start, was a lawful arrest during which Floyd resisted.

That’s where Cahill came out — 22 and a half years.

The big question today was whether Chauvin would address the court, as defendants are entitled to do at sentencing. The risk was that anything he said in the way of an admission could be used against him by the federal government in its prosecution of Chauvin and the other three implicated police officers on civil-rights charges. On the other hand, a failure to express some remorse could well have pushed Cahill in the direction of a more severe sentence. Chauvin resolved the dilemma by making just a short statement to tell the Floyd family he was sorry for their loss.

More riveting was the statement from Chauvin’s heartbroken mother, who said her proudest days were when her son was born and when he graduated from the police academy. Publicly, she lamented, “My son’s identity has been reduced to that of a racist. I want this court to known that none of these things are true, and that my son is a good man.”

As I’ve previously observed, there was no evidence in the case suggesting that Chauvin’s actions were motivated by racism. That is a political narrative, not a legal determination.

George Floyd’s brothers also made emotional statements to the court. Terrence Floyd wanted to know from Chauvin himself, “What were you thinking? What was going through your head when you had your knee on my brother’s neck?” He asked the court to impose the maximum sentence.

Judge Cahill did not do that, but it was a severe sentence. And to cover his bases, Cahill is issuing a 22-page opinion explaining his reasoning.

This will be very hard time for the former cop. Chauvin is currently housed in Minnesota’s only maximum-security prison, on 23-hour lock-down. That is, he is alone in a ten-by-ten cell 23 hours per day, gets one hour of exercise, but must for his own safety be isolated from the general population of prisoners.