Judge faces wide gap in sentencing requests for Derek Chauvin

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Thirteen months after he murdered George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes in the street, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin will face sentencing Friday for the crime that shocked the world and hastened discussions about racial equity and police reform.

Chauvin’s sentencing in Hennepin County District Court at 1:30 p.m. likely will be the second time in modern Minnesota history that an officer has been sent to prison for killing a civilian on the job. Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill will consider disparate sentences proposed by Chauvin’s attorney and prosecutors — probation vs. 30 years, respectively — and will possibly offer his first public opinion about the crime before announcing his decision.

“He’s looking for a sentence that is sufficient to penalize Mr. Chauvin but not to destroy him for the sake of public sentiment,” said defense attorney A.L. Brown, who has no involvement in the case. “I think that’s a really tough job right now.”

Several local attorneys predicted that the judge would land somewhere around 20 to 25 years and that Chauvin, who also faces pending federal charges in the case, is unlikely to speak at sentencing when given an opportunity to address the court.

“I’d be very surprised if [Cahill] went above 24, 25 years,” said defense attorney Joe Friedberg. “I don’t think he’s going to go to 30 years. It just doesn’t seem right.”

Jurors convicted Chauvin, 45, on April 20 of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. He will be sentenced on the second-degree murder count, which carries a statutory maximum term of 40 years in prison.

Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, has argued in a court filing that Chauvin deserves leniency because he has a strong support network, would be attacked in prison and has no prior criminal history, among other reasons.

There is no chance, several attorneys said, that Cahill will grant Nelson’s request for probation and time served, or alternately, his secondary request for a prison term lower than recommended by state sentencing guidelines. The guidelines call for between 10 ½ and 15 years in prison on second-degree murder for someone with no criminal history. The presumptive term for the offense is 12 ½ years.

“It’s hard on the defense side,” said Mitchell Hamline School of Law Prof. Ted Sampsell-Jones. “You want to argue for the lowest sentencing that you think you can practically get, but you also need to maintain some credibility.”

Defense attorney and former Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner questioned Nelson’s approach.

“I’m not sure that’s a tactic I would take,” she said. “If you want to make the judge think about it in a different way than worst-case scenario, perhaps you start with a reasonable compromise to get the judge on board.”

Chauvin’s sentence will likely be affected by aggravating factors presented by the prosecution in their argument for a stiffer sentence. Cahill reviewed the prosecution’s five proposed factors and ruled last month that four were proven and will be considered at sentencing: Chauvin “abused a position of trust and authority” as an officer; he treated Floyd with “particular cruelty”; children were present when Floyd was pinned to the pavement at 38th and Chicago for nine minutes and 29 seconds, and he committed the crime with three fellow officers. Only one aggravating factor is needed for the judge to depart upward from sentencing guidelines.

Several attorneys agreed it’s unlikely that Cahill would sentence Chauvin to the full 40 years allowed under the law. Statutory maximum prison terms are rare and reserved for defendants with lengthy criminal histories.

“Maximum sentences are there to frighten defendants on some theory of deterrence,” Brown said. “Maximum sentences are made by politicians in St. Paul who want to appear tough on crime, but no one gets the maximum sentence and I don’t expect Mr. Chauvin to get the maximum sentence here.”

Fred Fink, who served as a prosecutor for 40 years in Washington and Ramsey counties and in Wisconsin, said he’s handled 30 to 40 second-degree murder cases and can’t recall getting a maximum prison term once.

“Clearly with the public visibility [of the case] I think that makes it important that [Cahill] make the so-called ‘right’ decision,” Fink said. “… When you consider factoring in the victim and victim’s family, you are by necessity factoring in a broader community effect” in determining the length of the sentence.

At sentencing, judges consider the facts of the case, legal parameters and a presentence investigation of the defendant that examines their life history and thoughts about the crime. Statements from victims, victims’ family members and the defendant, who can choose to remain silent, also factor in, as well as letters of support for either side.

“Sentencing is the most challenging thing that a judge does, because you have a person’s life in front of you which you can impact in a lot of ways,” said retired Hennepin County District Judge Kevin Burke, Minnesota’s longest-serving judge. “It’s an awesome responsibility in which you get a lot of sleepless nights.”

Burke declined to address the Chauvin case but said public pressure doesn’t play as big a role as some may think.

A defendant’s comments at sentencing can “make a lot of difference” in their sentence, Burke said, adding that someone who shows remorse and insight into their actions could potentially persuade a judge to shorten the term or opt for probation.

While some attorneys said it could serve the community well to hear from Chauvin on Friday, most predicted that he wouldn’t speak because of a pending case against him in federal court in Floyd’s death, Nelson’s motion for a new trial in state court and a possible appeal. Any remarks Chauvin makes could be used against him in the federal trial or a new state trial if one is granted.

“It might be good if Chauvin has the capability to do it — to let his humanity come out” and speak, said Joseph Daly, Mitchell Hamline School of Law emeritus professor. “But is he capable of coming across in a manner that’s human and somewhat begging for forgiveness and asking for forgiveness and recognizing that he made a terrible, terrible decision? I’m not sure anything he says will help him.”

Sentencing is also an opportunity for judges to break free of objectivity by commenting on the defendant’s ownership of their actions, the crime and its impact on the victim and society.

“We’re going to learn more about Judge Cahill than we’ll learn about the law,” Brown said of Chauvin’s sentencing.

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