MINNEAPOLIS – In sentencing Derek Chauvin to 22 1/2 years in prison, the criminal justice system has shown it can act swiftly and severely when faced with a police officer’s slow-motion murder of a Black man that’s recorded by bystanders and witnessed by millions.
The question is whether the example made of Chauvin will change anything for the many Black men and people of color who are disproportionately killed by police – often in an instant with inconclusive video and no witnesses.
Both the state and federal governments are also conducting civil rights investigations into the Minneapolis Police Department for a potential history of systemic abuses.
Chauvin murdered George Floyd, 46, in May 2020 after officers responded to a report that he had used a counterfeit $20 bill. Floyd was handcuffed face-down on the street and repeatedly yelled, “I can’t breathe” as Chauvin continued to press a knee to his neck for 9 1/2 minutes.
The egregious nature of Chauvin’s crime has led officers across the country and in his own department to disavow him and even testify against him. Chauvin, 45, has sat in a maximum-security prison since a jury convicted him on April 20 of second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
At Friday’s sentencing hearing, Chauvin offered his “condolences” to the Floyd family but did not apologize for his actions. He said he was unable to speak further due to ongoing litigation.
Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill found that Chauvin acted with “particular cruelty” toward Floyd and abused his position of trust and authority as a Minneapolis police officer. Chauvin will have to register as a predatory offender and provide a DNA sample.
Under Minnesota law, Chauvin will serve two-thirds of his sentence, or 15 years, behind bars and the remainder under a type of supervised release that’s similar to parole. Chauvin will get credit for the time he’s already served.
“If you want to talk real plainly, white America can keep kicking Derek Chauvin, that’s great and that’s fine,” said St. Paul criminal and civil litigator A.L. Brown. “But at the end of the day, you aren’t going to get a whole lot more out of him than what has been placed on him. He is seeing a tremendous amount of accountability.
“The real question is, can we reproduce it in a way that prevents the creation of the next Derek Chauvin, who is out there wearing a badge carrying a gun, who’s in training, who’s thinking about a career in law enforcement, who’s gotten away with abuses unchecked,” Brown added. “That’s the real task. I’m over Derek Chauvin.”
Holding Chauvin accountable
Chauvin’s case has included a series of firsts. It was Minnesota’s first state court trial to be televised in its entirety primarily due to the pandemic and garnered national and international interest.
Chauvin’s murder of Floyd was also the first time white people throughout the country joined in protests with people of color against police brutality and systemic racism.
And the jury’s guilty verdict was the first time a white police officer was held accountable for murdering a Black man in Minnesota. Black men are disproportionately killed by police, which is why legal observers say holding Chauvin accountable is in and of itself is important for Floyd, his family and the community.
The Floyd family and attorneys Ben Crump, Antonio Romanucci and Chris Stewart called the sentence a “significant step forward” in a joint statement Friday.
“This historic sentence brings the Floyd family and our nation one step closer to healing by delivering closure and accountability. For once, a police officer who wrongly took the life of a Black man was held to account,” it said.
During the hearing, George Floyd’s brother, Terrence Floyd, said he would ask Chauvin, who sat just several feet away from him: “Why? What were you thinking? What was going through your head when you had your knee on my brother’s neck. When you knew he posed no threat anymore, yet he was handcuffed. Why at least didn’t you get up, why did you stay there?”
Terrence Floyd paused at times with emotion and looked down. He said he wanted the maximum penalty because “we don’t want to see no more slaps on the wrist,” and noted that if things “were reversed, there would be no case, it’d be open and shut, we’d be in the jail for murdering somebody.”
Chauvin showed a “callous disregard for human life,” and did so in front of children who will have to live with the trauma of that experience, said Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney and former president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP. She noted that the alleged crime of providing a counterfeit $20 bill would not have even resulted in jail time.
But as important as it was to hold Chauvin accountable, legal observers say the unique nature of the case makes it difficult for it to set any real precedent. Floyd’s death has been influential in that it has raised national awareness about systemic injustice and police brutality.
But the recent death of another Black Minneapolis man, Winston Smith Jr., showcases how Floyd’s death was an outlier. He was fatally shot earlier this month by Sheriff’s deputies on a U.S. Marshals task force who claimed he displayed a handgun in the moments before the shooting, despite a witness statement to the contrary. There was no bodycam footage.
Chauvin’s case was unusual, said Mary Moriarty, the former chief public defender for Hennepin County, who noted that it was not only tried by the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office with more than a dozen lawyers working pro bono and “some of the best expert witnesses I’ve ever seen,” but Chauvin has also spent 9 1/2 minutes with his knee on Floyd’s neck in a scene watched by bystanders and captured on cellphone and bodycam video.
“This is atypical of the cases that usually involve an interaction between a police officer and a black person,” she said. “Those often involve gunshots and the officer would say he or she was afraid” and making a split-second decision – using language found in Constitutional law and precedent that has overwhelmingly been favorable to cops.
Still, the case does serve as a high-profile signal that law enforcement has been “put on notice” that if someone dies in your custody, the days of sweeping the death and the reputation of the deceased under the rug, are over, Brown said.
Legal observers also note how unusual it is for a federal indictment to come down after a state conviction. But that may be in part to ensure Chauvin serves out his sentence likely concurrently and perhaps agrees as part of a plea deal to not appeal his state case, Moriarty said.
The state case against the three other former officers, Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao, are expected to go to trial next year. They have also been federally indicted, multiple legal observers noted, probably in an effort to place pressure on them for a plea deal and to avoid another trial that may traumatize already traumatized witnesses.
The three other officers have been charged with aiding and abetting and aggravating factors. They would face the same possible sentence Chauvin does if they are convicted in state court.
Does a ‘pro-police’ prosecution give the system a pass?
During Chauvin’s trial, the prosecution repeatedly called itself a “pro-police” prosecution, making a clear distinction between Chauvin and the rest of law enforcement.
“The defendant is not on trial for being a police officer, he’s not on trial for who he was, he’s on trial for what he did,” prosecutor Steve Schleicher told jurors.
Even Friday, at Chauvin’s sentencing hearing, Matthew Frank first thanked Minneapolis police officers for sticking to their oath and speaking honestly about their jobs and training during the trial.
“Being a police officer is a difficult job, we ask a lot of them… and most police officers do it right,” Frank told the court. Then he made sure to say again, “this case wasn’t about police officers… it was about Derek Chauvin disregarding all that training he received and assaulting Mr. Floyd until he suffocated to death.”
Even Cahill, concluding that 270 months was an appropriate sentence for Chauvin, differentiated him from the rest of his department, “because part of the Minneapolis Police Department’s mission is to give citizens ‘voice and respect,'” he wrote in Friday’s sentencing memorandum.
“Here, Mr. Chauvin, rather than pursuing the MPD mission, 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 a way, the case also provides a blueprint for how prosecutors can successfully prosecute these cases if they want to, Moriarty said. The strategy allows the prosecution to avoid alienating jurors, who are traditionally supportive of police.
Brown said it was “wholly unnecessary” for the prosecution to say we’re pro-police. “Who the hell is anti-police? It’s a silly notion. The notion that we have to say we’re pro-police or anti-police based on how the police treat us,” Brown said.”Any person would take offense to abuse.”
The problem with the “pro-police” tactic, said Sarah Davis, the executive director of The Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis, is that in many ways, what the prosecution ends up doing, in holding Chauvin accountable, is to relieve the rest of the criminal justice system of its accountability.
“I have a lot of worry about the way that this allows law enforcement and police officers to say that’s not me. That’s not us,” Davis said.
Davis said she’s not sure it’s possible to hold an individual officer accountable and also hold the system accountable for creating such an officer.
“There’s a fundamental tension there,” Davis said. “In order to hold an individual police officer accountable, you have to demonstrate they’re doing something outside of what the system allows. So the question then, is what does accountability look like for the system in this space?”
But Moriarty said while the Attorney General’s Office could have taken on the system, that wasn’t the best strategic choice if the goal was to convict Chauvin with the crimes he was charged.
A lot of people were upset about “going with the bad apple approach,” Moriarty said. But the reality is “the criminal legal system is not designed to change the system.”
For actual systemic change, Moriarty said it’s important to look to police but also prosecutors, judges and policymakers because “this can’t be about a criminal trial” it has to be about how the system inherently functions. For example, prosecutors noting potentially problematic bodycam behavior to supervisors when a case is presented by an officer, rather than merely declining to file charges because the officer has a credibility problem.
Chauvin has also been indicted in federal court for allegedly violating the rights of a 14-year-old boy by detaining him without justification in 2017 and placing his knee on the boy’s neck for 17 minutes, causing the teen to pass out.
“You ask yourself, what if there was some interruption in the way Chauvin behaved a long time ago,” Moriarty said. “If a prosecutor (reviewed the video and) said, ‘You know what? You’re a little out of control here. There was no need for you to do what you did.’ And if they told the police department. Then, could this have been prevented?”
The Legal Rights Center is working with other organizations to review dozens of cases Chauvin was involved in as a cop for potential misconduct or other issues, said Andrew Gordon, the center’s deputy director for community legal services, during a recent virtual panel it hosted.
Chauvin will likely be forgotten in three months if people had not already forgotten about the sentencing, Brown said, notingthat at the end of the day, Chauvin’s successful prosecution “gives white folks the room and space to say, ‘Well, what more do you want? You see? The system worked.'”
Problematic jury instructions
To convict Chauvin, Cahill allowed jury instructions that “significantly” and “radically” broaden the definition of assault such that any unreasonable force constitutes assault – even if there is no intent to injure someone. And if that person dies as a result, it constitutes felony murder, said Ted Sampsell-Jones, a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in neighboring St. Paul.
Those instructions are now likely to become the precedent for jury instructions in future cases, Sampsell-Jones said.
“In order to prosecute Chauvin, the state has pushed for this broad version of felony murder doctrine, which, yes, is precedent and can be used against cops, but mostly it’s used against Black people and poor people,” Sampsell-Jones said.
Other than the state of Georgia, Minnesota has “probably the most extreme felony murder doctrine in the country,” Sampsell-Jones said, noting that this case is an incremental step toward solidifying bad law. That law allows anyone involved in a felony to be charged with murder if a death occurs during the course of the felony, whether or not the death was intended.
But Armstrong said she was not concerned about the broadening of the language. “People of color are already subjected to harsher forms of criminal punishment for even lesser offenses than what we saw in this case,” she said.
Armstrong cited the case of Mohamed Noor, a Black former Minneapolis police officer, who shot and killed Justine Ruszcyk when she approached his squad car in the dark. He was charged with second-degree intentional murder; Chauvin was charged with second-degree unintentional murder.
In the end, Sampsell-Jones believes the Chauvin prosecution will go down as a mostly “symbolic victory.” In fact, he called it a possible setback for the prison population, which could grow even more because of the expansion of the definitions of crimes and punishments. And those new definitions will be used to justify tough charges and long sentences against others.
“The win-at-all-costs mentality is understandable given the stakes, but in the long run, it can have unintended consequences,” Sampsell-Jones said. “There’s an old saying that hard cases make bad law, and it’s also true that high-profile cases make bad law.”
“Above all, he said, “convicting one individual cop is no substitute for actual legal reform.”
Tami Abdollah is a USA TODAY national correspondent covering inequities in the criminal justice system, send tips via direct message @latams or email tami(at)usatoday.com