Derek Chauvin pleaded guilty to civil rights violations in two federal cases Wednesday morning in St. Paul, ending a bitter and winding legal chapter for the former Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd in May 2020 and ignited a global outcry.
Reversing his initial not-guilty pleas, Chauvin told U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson he abused his power as a police officer to deprive Floyd and, before that, a 14-year-old boy of their constitutional rights to be free from "unreasonable force." In separate encounters several years apart, he pinned both down with his knee on their necks.
In court Wednesday, Chauvin, 45, wore orange prison garb and did not speak other than answering the judge's questions. When prosecutors described the allegations, Chauvin replied "correct" to each count.
Asked how he pleaded, Chauvin said: "At this time, guilty, your honor."
Chauvin still awaits sentencing for the federal felonies, which come on top of the 221⁄2 years in prison he's serving for murder and manslaughter convictions in state court for Floyd's killing. The pleas mean he will avoid two more lengthy trials. The government is recommending a 25-year sentence, shorter than the life sentence he faced if found guilty at trial. He would serve the sentence concurrently with his state sentence, and in a federal prison, under recommendations in the plea agreement.
By taking the plea deal, Chauvin is "greatly enhancing his chances that he'll get out during his natural life," said Mark Osler, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law and former federal prosecutor.
Serving his time in federal prison also means he may leave the state, which reduces the possibility that Chauvin will encounter people he helped put in prison or those who would target him in retribution for Floyd, said Osler. "There's a possibility of him being targeted in any prison, but I think there's a higher likelihood of him being targeted in a Minnesota prison."
Bob Bennett, attorney for the juvenile victim, who is now 18, called it a "good plea," and said his client is happy to see the ordeal finished.
"He's happy that [Chauvin] pled guilty and he's agreed to a sentence that, any way you slice it, will get him more than the state's sentence," said Bennett. "It's important because it shows the long term and serial violations of the constitutional rights of people that Chauvin engaged in."
Bennett said some of the responsibility for Floyd's death falls on Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo for failing to take Chauvin off the street after the assault of Bennett's client in 2017, which was "eerily similar" to what happened to Floyd. At the time of the assault, Arradondo had just taken over the acting chief role under a promise to rebuild a damaged department after a Minneapolis officer killed Justine Ruszczyk Damond.
Bennett and his client both attended the plea hearing, along with members of Floyd's family. "It's a good day for justice," Floyd's brother, Philonise Floyd, said to Bennett and his client after the hearing.
Chauvin's ex-wife and other family members were also present.
With his plea, Chauvin waives his right to appeal the conviction, other than on narrow factors related to jurisdiction. "This is the end of it," said Magnuson in court.
Meanwhile, three of Chauvin's former colleagues are still headed for back-to-back federal and state trials, on track to begin early next year, on charges they aided and abetted Chauvin in fatally restraining Floyd. Attorneys for J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao have all raised concerns that going to trial alongside Chauvin would have tainted the jury pool and prevented a fair trial. In removing himself from the equation, Chauvin is in effect granting their wish.
Over the past 18 months, Chauvin's criminal proceedings have become a test for the criminal justice system's ability to hold law enforcement accountable for brutality against the public. His case has drawn the ire of people worldwide who believe American policing suffers from a fundamental and lethal corruption. Others view Chauvin as the victim of a politicized trial. The case showed the deep chasm in public opinion over the future of law enforcement in the country.
In a statement, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland hailed the outcome as proof that "the Justice Department is committed to holding accountable those who violate the Constitution, and to safeguarding the civil rights of all Americans."
The Department of Justice began investigating Chauvin in the days after Floyd's murder. As his state trial closed, federal prosecutors had gathered enough evidence for a charge, but they didn't want to create a publicity frenzy that threatened the outcome, so they came up with a plan to charge and arrest Chauvin before he left the courthouse if a jury found him not guilty. After a jury convicted him on all charges — a rarity in the court system — the plan wasn't necessary. A grand jury indicted Chauvin and the others weeks later on May 7.
The charges alleged Chauvin exploited the "color of the law" to deprive Floyd of his right to remain free from unreasonable seizure. "Chauvin held his left knee across George Floyd's neck, and his right knee on Floyd's back and arm, as George Floyd lay on the ground, handcuffed and unresisting, and kept his knees on Floyd's neck and body even after Floyd became unresponsive," said the indictment. "This offense resulted in bodily injury to, and the death of George Floyd."
A second indictment arose from a past arrest that prosecutors in the state case attempted to submit as evidence of Chauvin's brutal policing style. In 2017, he responded to a call from a mother who said her son and daughter assaulted her. Chauvin arrived to find the boy lying on his back looking at his phone, and when the teenager refused to comply with Chauvin's order, Chauvin held him by the throat and struck his face with a flashlight, according to charges. "Chauvin held his knee on the neck and the upper back of Juvenile 1 even after Juvenile 1 was lying prone, handcuffed, and unresisting," the indictment read.
Seventeen complaints had been filed against Chauvin in his 19-year career with Minneapolis police. He was disciplined once.
Chauvin's record cast a spotlight on Minneapolis' failures to discipline problem officers and the department's history of officers having been found to beat suspects in custody. The Justice Department is investigating whether Minneapolis police have promoted a "pattern and practice" of illegal behavior.