MINNEAPOLIS — Derek Chauvin abused his authority as a police officer when he pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck until he went limp and treated him with “particular cruelty,” qualifying him for a longer prison sentence, a judge said.
In a ruling made public Wednesday, Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill found state prosecutors had proved beyond a reasonable doubt four of five aggravating factors in Floyd’s killing that they argued should result in a tougher prison sentence for the former Minneapolis police officer.
Chauvin was convicted April 20 of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s May 25 killing. Floyd died when Chauvin placed his knees on Floyd’s neck and back for more than nine minutes while he was handcuffed, facedown, on a Minneapolis street. Chauvin, who is being held in solitary confinement at a Minnesota prison, is scheduled to be sentenced June 25.
Although a jury found Chauvin guilty on all three charges he was facing, Minnesota law dictates he will face sentencing only on the most serious charge: second-degree murder. State sentencing guidelines on that charge recommend 11 to 12 years in prison for someone with no criminal history.
But prosecutors last fall and again last month asked Cahill for what is known as an “upward sentencing departure,” citing several factors they argued should open Chauvin up to a maximum of 40 years in prison.
In his ruling, Cahill agreed with prosecutors that Chauvin had “abused a position of trust and authority” as a police officer and that Chauvin “knew from his training and experience” that his restraint was putting Floyd in “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 and expressed his view that he was dying as a result of the officers’ restraint,” Cahill wrote, referring to Chauvin and the other two officers who restrained him.
The judge pointed to Chauvin’s decision to stay on top of Floyd — even after another officer at the scene, Thomas Lane, asked whether they should roll Floyd onto his side and another, Alexander Kueng, told him he could no longer detect a pulse. “Not only was the danger of asphyxia theoretical, it was communicated to the defendant as actually occurring,” Cahill wrote. “But [Chauvin] continued his restraint.”
Cahill also agreed with prosecutors that Chauvin had been “particularly cruel” to Floyd, ignoring his cries for breath during his lengthy restraint. “Mr. Floyd was begging for his life and obviously terrified by the knowledge he was likely to die,” Cahill wrote, adding that Chauvin “remained indifferent to Mr. Floyd’s pleas.”
The judge also sided with prosecutors on two other aggravating factors — that Chauvin committed the crime with the “active participation” of the three officers at the scene and that Floyd was killed in front of children, including a 9-year-old girl.
But Cahill disagreed with prosecutors who argued that Floyd was “particularly vulnerable” because he was handcuffed and held facedown on the street. Cahill said Floyd’s handcuffs did not create a “particular vulnerability,” writing that he had been able to resist arrest before being placed on the ground.
“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 causing death.”
Chauvin’s defense had argued the state had not proved any aggravating factors in Floyd’s killing. In a filing last month, defense attorney Eric Nelson repeated several arguments he had made at trial — including that Chauvin was authorized under the law to use reasonable force.
Nelson also argued there was “no evidence” that Chauvin had been particularly cruel to Floyd. He claimed the state had not proved there was “gratuitous infliction of pain and cruelty” that is usually associated with second-degree murder — an argument that Cahill ultimately rejected.
Nelson could not immediately be reached for comment.
Nelson last week filed a motion for a new trial, alleging misconduct by the judge, prosecutors and jurors. Cahill has not ruled on the request.
Wednesday’s announcement came days after Chauvin and the other three officers at the scene — Kueng, Lane and Tou Thao — were indicted on federal charges alleging they violated Floyd’s civil rights. Chauvin was also indicted on a second federal charge alleging he violated the civil rights of a 14-year-old by hitting the boy with a flashlight and kneeling on him during a 2017 arrest.
Chauvin has not entered a plea on the federal charges. If convicted, he would probably serve out the federal sentence at the same time as his state sentence.
It is unclear how the federal charges will impact the state’s case against Kueng, Lane and Thao, who are charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter and are scheduled to stand trial in August. Attorneys for the officers are scheduled to be in court Thursday for a motion hearing.
Prosecutors have also sought to add a third-degree-murder charge against the former officers, in a case scheduled to be heard by the Minnesota Court of Appeals later this month.