The judge in Derek Chauvin's murder trial characterized the killing of George Floyd late last spring as especially cruel in his finding of several aggravated sentencing factors, clearing the way for him to exceed state guidelines and impose a longer sentence for the fired Minneapolis police officer.
In rulings filed Wednesday that embraced many of the major prosecution points that led to Chauvin's conviction last month, Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill said the facts of the case showed there are four aggravated factors that "have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt" and will be considered when he sentences Chauvin on June 25.
Those factors are that Chauvin "abused a position of trust and authority" as a police officer, that he "treated George Floyd with particular cruelty," that children were present when Floyd was pinned to the pavement at 38th and Chicago for more than nine minutes until he died, and that he committed the crime with the "active participation" of others, namely three fellow officers.
Chauvin, 45, was convicted April 20 on charges of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in connection with Floyd's death on May 25. Defense attorney Eric Nelson declined to comment on Cahill's rulings.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who put together the team that prosecuted Chauvin, said in a statement, "We appreciate the court agreed with our assessment of the aggravating factors. The particular cruelty of Derek Chauvin's conduct, his abuse of authority with his fellow officers and the impact of this crime on the minors who had to witness it require a sentence that holds Mr. Chauvin sufficiently accountable."
Although the maximum term for a second-degree murder conviction is 40 years, the most Chauvin could receive would be 30 years, given that he has no previous criminal history, according to Ted Sampsell-Jones, a professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law and an appellate criminal defense attorney. The first 20 years would be served in prison and the balance on supervised release, if Chauvin qualifies.
"The judge basically threw the book at him," said Minneapolis defense attorney Joe Tamburino.
"Obviously, Mr. Chauvin is going to get a lot more time than what the guidelines call for," in this case 12 ½ years, Tamburino said. "I think the judge is going to give him 30 years."
University of St. Thomas Law Prof. Rachel Moran said Cahill's choice of language "does not paint a hopeful picture for Mr. Chauvin. The judge uses the word 'egregious' twice to describe Mr. Chauvin's behavior and notes that Mr. Chauvin's behavior was particularly cruel because he remained indifferent while George Floyd begged for his life in obvious terror."
Moran added that "Judge Cahill's order is interesting because it's the first window we've really had into what the judge himself thinks about the evidence against Mr. Chauvin."
In finding abuse of trust and authority as an aggravated factor, the judge cited Chauvin holding Floyd to the pavement handcuffed in the prone position for "an inordinate amount of time" while knowing of the danger of positional asphyxia.
"The prolonged use of this technique was particularly egregious in that George Floyd made it clear he was unable to breathe," Cahill wrote, "and expressed the view that he was dying as a result of the officers' restraint."
As far as Chauvin's treatment of Floyd, Cahill explained, "The slow death of George Floyd occurring over approximately six minutes of his positional asphyxia was particularly cruel in that Mr. Floyd was begging for his life and obviously terrified by the knowledge that he was likely to die but during which the Defendant objectively remained indifferent to Mr. Floyd's pleas."
David Schultz, law professor at the University of Minnesota and a political science professor at Hamline University, said after reading Cahill's rulings that "given the fact of a cluster of aggravated factors, the only question now is how much will [Cahill] depart" from sentencing guidelines.
Schultz said that having four aggravated factors "is a really high number. Theoretically, he would only need one to do a departure."
He also believes that Cahill listed the abuse of authority first and dedicated more than two pages to that section for a reason beyond the sentencing. "He wants to send a signal to other officers," Schultz said, " 'That if you want to do anything like this, look at what I did to Chauvin [at sentencing].' "
Not proven to Cahill as an aggravated factor was that Floyd was "particularly vulnerable," because although he was handcuffed, he was able to resist arrest before he was placed in the prone position, nor was his drug intoxication a factor as the defense had contended.
"Restraining George Floyd in the prone position with the weight of three police officers on him for a prolonged period did not create a vulnerability that was exploited to cause death," Cahill wrote. "It was the actual mechanism [the restraint] causing death."
Chauvin had been out on bond throughout his trial. But once the jurors found him guilty, Chauvin's bond was revoked, and he was handcuffed and taken to the Oak Park Heights Prison, where he remains until sentencing.
Taken in whole, Cahill's nearly 5 ½-page filing summed up much of the prosecution's case against Chauvin that led to guilty verdicts on all three counts after deliberating over two days.
Like the prosecution, Cahill noted how Chauvin's restraint of Floyd was not part of police training and that asphyxiation was the cause of death and not a combination of health problems and drug abuse, as the defense argued.
Regarding abuse of authority, Cahill said that Chauvin's "failure to render aid became particularly abusive after Mr. Floyd had passed out, and was still being restrained in the prone position, with the Defendant continuing to kneel on the back of Mr. Floyd's neck with one knee and on his back with another knee, for more than two and a half minutes after one of his fellow officers announced he was unable to detect a pulse."
In finding Chauvin treated Floyd with particular cruelty, the judge said without qualification that "Mr. Floyd had … made it clear he was having trouble breathing." During the trial, the defense suggested multiple times that Floyd could have been misleading police in order to avoid arrest when he repeatedly said, "I can't breathe."
Cahill's explanations throughout the ruling "pretty much mirrored what the prosecution had been presenting throughout the trial," Schultz said. "At the end of the day, it's clear that had he been the trier of fact, he would have reached the same conclusion as to a finding of guilt."
Fellow fired officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao are scheduled to be tried Aug. 23 for aiding and abetting second-degree murder and manslaughter in Floyd's death. All three are out on bond.
Cahill elaborated in Wednesday's ruling that his referencing the "active participation" of Kueng, Lane and Thao constitutes "no finding [by the court] that they are 'offenders' subject to criminal liability."
In a separate ruling Wednesday afternoon, Cahill decided there would be no audio and video coverage allowed during pretrial hearings for the remaining three defendants.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482