Chauvin’s sentencing not surprising, but there were unexpected, troubling moments

legal insights

After hearing victim impact from George Floyd’s family, arguments from the lawyers, a statement from Chauvin’s mother, and a few words from Derek Chauvin, Judge Peter Cahill sent him to prison for 270 months, or 22.5 years. This was not a surprise to many observers, but there were a few unexpected moments during the sentencing.

Some people were disappointed to learn that Chauvin would “only” do two-thirds of his sentence. Minnesota has determinate sentencing, which means that when a judge sends a person to prison, he will do two-thirds of his time. The last third of the prison sentence is served on supervised release in the community. While a person cannot be released early by earning “good time,” he can lose some of his supervised release time by engaging in certain behaviors in prison.

Some states have indeterminate sentencing, where a judge sentences a person to a range of years, such as five to 15, in prison. After five years, a parole board can decide to release the person from prison. In those states, the public does not know how much time the person will serve in prison at the time of sentencing. So, Minnesota’s determinate sentences provide more transparency to the public. Any member of the public can also look on the Minnesota Department of Corrections website to see a person’s expected release date.  

George Floyd’s seven-year-old daughter, two brothers, and his nephew gave victim impact statements to the judge. In my 31-year career as a public defender, I have listened to many grieving relatives, and it never gets easier.  Impact statements have two consistent themes.  Family members talk about their loved one never again attending family celebrations or rites of passage in their children’s lives. And they want to understand why. One of Mr. Floyd’s brothers asked, “What were you thinking when your knee was on my brother’s neck?”

The truth about the criminal legal system is that it rarely answers that critically important question for people who are harmed because it is not designed to. Jury trials are adversarial proceedings to determine whether the state can prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If the prosecutor is successful, we move on to punishment—which is a vastly different concept than accountability.  To understand the difference, I highly recommend Danielle Sered’s book, “Until We Reckon.” 

One unexpected speaker during the sentencing was Chauvin’s mother Carolyn Pawlenty who argued that her son was innocent. At sentencing, the person has been convicted and arguing innocence is irrelevant to the issue being decided by the judge. Her statement, however, was consistent with the defense’s sentencing memo that I would describe as defiant.   

A judge understands that a convicted person does not want to jeopardize his appeal or pending charges by statements at sentencing, but he is also looking for any indication of insight, remorse, or empathy for the victim. Even after the judge wrote that Chauvin inflicted particular cruelty on Floyd by making him beg for his life as he was slowly being asphyxiated, the defense insisted that his death was relatively quick. 

While the guidelines called for a sentence between 128 and 180 months (about 10.5 to 15 years,) the judge did give Chauvin a longer (aggravated) sentence. Cahill could have given him up to 30 years, but he imposed a sentence that he described as being 10 years above the presumptive guideline sentence. What lawyers call the “middle of the box” on the guidelines grid was 150 months—or almost 12.5 years. That is 10 more years than the sentence imposed on former MPD officer Mohamed Noor for killing Justine Damond in July 2017. 

A judge who departs from the guidelines must articulate the factors upon which he relied. Cahill filed a sentencing memorandum, writing that, although the state had proven four aggravating factors at trial, he relied on two to increase the sentence. Those factors were that Chauvin abused his position of trust as a Minneapolis Police Officer and that he inflicted particular cruelty upon Floyd. 

The most remarkable, and disappointing, aspect of the memo was that Cahill dismissed the aggravating factor that children were present. There is no requirement that trauma be inflicted upon children who are present during a murder, probably because the law assumes that witnessing a murder is going to cause trauma to a child.

This did not stop Cahill from writing that, “although the State contends that all four of these young women were traumatized by witnessing this incident, the evidence at trial did not indicate any objective indicia of trauma.” He also wrote that Darnella Frazier posted the video on social media and that two of the “young women” were smiling and laughing during the restraint of Floyd.

This conclusion reveals a terrible misunderstanding of trauma. When trying to process a traumatic event, human beings exhibit emotions which may seem incongruous, but are completely normal given the circumstances. I also wonder what the judge was doing when Frazier testified, through tears, about praying to George Floyd at night and apologizing to him for not doing more. 

These were also not “young women.” One was seven years old and the other three were teenaged girls. Research tells us that people often overestimate the age of Black youth, making them seem more aggressive than White youth the same age. We also know that Black pain is minimized or ignored, even by medical professionals, which is one factor that gives rise to health disparities. 

To see these uninformed and gratuitous conclusions in a sentencing memo is an indication that, although Chauvin was convicted, we have a long way to go in the criminal legal system.