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What you need to know about this week’s sentencing of Derek Chauvin

By Jon Collins, Minnesota Public Radio News

More than a year after he pinned George Floyd to the pavement, knelt on his neck and deprived him of the ability to breathe, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin will be sentenced Friday for Floyd’s murder.

Derek Chauvin

In April, Chauvin became the first white officer in Minnesota to be convicted of killing a Black man. A jury found Chauvin guilty on all counts — second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter. Floyd’s murder, witnessed by several bystanders and millions watching on social media, rocked the world and set off protests against police killings and racism.

Fewer than a dozen officers around the country have been sentenced for murder, according to experts who track police killings, which makes Friday’s hearing rare even in a national context.

Here’s what you need to know about the Chauvin sentencing.Click on a link to jump to a specific section.

What kind of sentence is Chauvin facing?

Chauvin will only be sentenced for the most serious charge of second-degree murder. For an offender with no previous criminal record, state guidelines recommend a 12.5-year sentence, or a range of 128 to 180 months. The judge is given some discretion in sentencing, but the statutory maximum penalty for second-degree murder in Minnesota is 40 years, which legal observers say is unlikely.

Offenders in the state who serve “good time” will usually serve just two-thirds of their sentence in prison, and the remaining third on supervised release.  

What are prosecutors asking for?

Prosecutors asked the judge to consider aggravating factors when sentencing Chauvin.

Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter Cahill agreed that there were four aggravating factors present during Floyd’s killing that would support what’s known as an upward departure, or a harsher sentence than what state guidelines recommend. Those factors include that Chauvin abused his position of authority, that Floyd was treated with “particular cruelty,” that the crime was committed by a group, and that children were present at the scene.

Prosecutors have asked the judge to sentence Chauvin to 30 years.

What is Chauvin’s defense seeking?

Chauvin’s attorney Eric Nelson has asked that his client serve only probation. He’s arguing that Chauvin didn’t intend to kill Floyd, and citing Chauvin’s cooperative behavior and attitude during the trial.

The filing by Nelson also said that Chauvin has “support in the community” after serving as a police officer for almost two decades, including from his family, and that he has “received thousands of letters of support since his arrest in 2020.”

What is the average sentence for other officers around the country who have been convicted of murder in on-duty killings?

Sentencing guidelines differ by state, but sentences for former police officers convicted of on-duty murders have ranged from 81 months in prison to a life sentence, according to research from Bowling Green State University professor Philip Stinson. That adds up to an average sentence of 21.7 years, although the median sentence is 15 years, Stinson said.

Nine of those 11 murders were committed using firearms, which Stinson found often led to a shorter-than-average sentence. The victims of two of those murders were ex-spouses or partners of the police officers.

What are previous examples of officers convicted of murder, and how much prison time did they get?

There have been only 11 police officers convicted of an on-duty murder in the United States in the last 15 years, according to Stinson’s research.

Among those is former Minneapolis officer Mohamed Noor, who was found guilty of third-degree murder in the shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk, a white woman from Australia, in 2019. Noor, a Somali American immigrant, received the recommended sentence of 12 1/2 years. Noor is the only other former officer convicted in an on-duty murder in Minnesota.

Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke shot and killed a Black 17-year-old, Laquan McDonald, in October 2014. Van Dyke, who is white, was sentenced to six years and nine months in prison. The short sentence sparked outrage in Chicago, but an effort to give him a harsher sentence was blocked by the Illinois Supreme Court. Van Dyke is expected to be released next year.

Other high-profile murder cases were resolved in federal court, where Chauvin and the other three former officers involved in Floyd’s killing are also facing charges. Charleston police officer Michael Slager shot and killed Walter Scott in 2015. The state case ended in mistrial, and Slager pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights charge. Slager was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

How rare is it for officers to be convicted in police killings?

Police in the United States kill about 1,000 people  while on duty every year, according to a database maintained by the Washington Post. But Stinson’s database shows that there are charges in just over 1 percent of those cases. Less than half of those officers who have been charged were eventually convicted, oftentimes on a lesser charge.

Can I watch the sentencing?

Judge Cahill has reserved most of the space in the courtroom for Floyd and Chauvin’s families. Only two reporters who are part of a media pool rotation are being allowed in to cover the proceedings in person.

But Cahill is also allowing most of the proceedings to be streamed by media organizations in the pool, including at mprnews.org and at the MPR News Facebook page.

What should I be watching for?

The judge has already received briefings outlining proposed sentences from both the defense and prosecution. But he may have questions related to their arguments.

Floyd’s family members and friends will have the opportunity to offer victim impact statements, which the judge will consider when handing down Chauvin’s sentence. This is the only part of the proceedings that requires written consent by the person presenting it before it can be broadcast.

It’s also possible that Chauvin, who chose not to testify and rarely spoke or showed emotion in court during his monthlong trial, could offer his own statement, or even attempt to demonstrate remorse for Floyd’s killing.

The judge will also explain how he settled on Chauvin’s sentence, especially if he decided to depart from the state guidelines.

Will there be increased security in downtown Minneapolis for the hearing?

A spokesperson for Mayor Jacob Frey says Frey has not requested support from the Minnesota National Guard.

But Frey “will be in close touch with the Chief and keep all options on the table,” said spokesperson Mychal Vlatkovich. “The MPD has requested mutual aid from neighboring jurisdictions and anticipates having a strong complement of law enforcement partners available if needed.”

The city isn’t putting up additional fencing or barricades at city-owned buildings, as was done during the verdict.

Hennepin County Government Center will also be closed to the general public on Friday. Only participants in the sentencing, Hennepin County staff and two pool reporters will be allowed in the building.

Can Chauvin appeal the sentence?

Yes. The judge has a couple post-conviction motions to issue decisions on that may then guide how Chauvin appeals the conviction and sentence.

The official process of appealing the sentence could begin soon after it’s handed down. Throughout the trial, Chauvin’s attorney made a record on contentious issues, including the influence of pretrial publicity on the verdict, which could come up again during the appeal.

MPR News reporter Nina Moini contributed to this report.