Former policeman Derek Chauvin was sentenced to 22 and a half years in jail today for murdering African American George Floyd, a killing that sparked America's biggest demonstrations for racial justice in decades.
"The sentence is not based on emotion or sympathy," said Judge Peter Cahill, handing down the term at a Minneapolis court after prosecutors sought a 30-year sentence.
He added in a short address that it was also not based on "on public opinion," but on the law and the facts specific to the case.
The judge went beyond the 12 1/2-year sentence prescribed under state guidelines, citing Chauvin's "abuse of a position of trust and authority and also the particular cruelty" shown to Floyd.
They included that Chauvin's offence occurred in front of minors and that he "committed the crime as a group with the active participation of at least three other" officers.
Why this matters?
Chauvin's sentence marks a watershed moment in the US history of oppression and discrimination against persons of colour as Floyd's case had become the epitome of similar abuse. Floyd's dying gasps under Chauvin’s knee led to the biggest outcry against racial injustice in the US in generations.
It took weeks for the mass demonstrations to taper off, but the debate around the pressing social issues remains vivid in the United States.
Apart from the public interest, the ruling also becomes significant as the punishment dealt out is one of the longest prison terms ever imposed on a US police officer in the killing of a Black person.
Philip Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University, said 11 non-federal law officers, including Chauvin, have been convicted of murder for on-duty deaths since 2005. The penalties for the nine who were sentenced before Chauvin ranged from from six years, nine months, to life behind bars, with the median being 15 years.
With Chauvin’s sentencing, the Floyd family and Black America witnessed something of a rarity: In the small number of instances in which officers accused of brutality or other misconduct against Black people have gone to trial, the list of acquittals and mistrials is longer than the list of sentencings after conviction.
In recent years, the acquittals have included officers tried in the deaths of Philando Castile in suburban Minneapolis and Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“That’s why the world has watched this trial, because it is a rare occurrence,” said Arizona-based civil rights attorney Benjamin Taylor.
What does the victim's family say?
Floyd family members and others were disappointed. The sentence fell short of the 30 years prosecutors had requested. And with good behavior, Chauvin, 45, could get out on parole after serving two-thirds of his sentence, or about 15 years.
“Just because it’s the most time doesn’t mean it’s enough time," said Nekima Levy Armstrong, a Minneapolis protest leader.
Floyd family attorney Ben Crump said the family had gotten “some measure of accountability” but is hoping Chauvin gets the maximum at his upcoming federal civil rights trial. Crump said this was the longest sentence a police officer has ever received in Minnesota.
But he added: "Real justice in America will be Black men and Black women and people of color who will not have to fear being killed by the police just because of the colour of their skin. That would be real justice."
Prosecutor Matthew Frank, in asking the judge to exceed the sentencing guidelines, said “tortured is the right word” for what the officer did to Floyd.
“This is not a momentary gunshot, punch to the face. This is 9½ minutes of cruelty to a man who was helpless and just begging for his life," Frank said.
Floyd family members had tearfully asked the judge to impose the maximum, which was 40 years. Several spoke before the sentence, and his 7-year-old daughter, Gianna, was seen in a recorded video.
“I miss you and I love you,” Gianna Floyd said in the video when asked what she would say to her daddy. She had a list of things she would have liked to do with him: “I want to play with him, have fun, go on a plane ride.”
Afterward, Floyd’s nephew Brandon Williams said the sentence was insufficient, “when you think about George being murdered, in cold blood with a knee on his neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds execution-style in broad daylight.” LaTonya Floyd, George Floyd’s sister, said of the punishment: “That’s nothing. That’s nothing. He should have got the max, period.”
Outside the courthouse, a crowd of about 50 people clasped hands or placed them on each other’s shoulders. The reaction was subdued as people debated whether the sentence was long enough. Some cursed in disgust.
At George Floyd Square, as the intersection where Floyd was pinned to the pavement is now known, members of the crowd broke into applause, and several said, “We’ll take it.”
The concrete barricades, razor wire and National Guard patrols at the courthouse during Chauvin's three-week trial in the spring were gone Friday, reflecting an easing of tensions since the verdict.
Chauvin was immediately led back to prison. He showed little emotion when the judge pronounced the sentence. His eyes moved rapidly around the courtroom, his COVID-19 mask obscuring much of his face.
The fired white officer was convicted in April of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter for pressing his knee against Floyd’s neck for up to 9 1/2 minutes as the 46-year-old man gasped that he couldn’t breathe and went limp on May 25, 2020.
Bystander video of Floyd’s arrest on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill at a corner store prompted protests around the world and led to scattered violence in Minneapolis and beyond, as well as demands for overhauling police departments.
On Friday, Chauvin, who did not testify at his trial, removed his mask and turned toward the Floyd family, speaking only briefly because of what he called “some additional legal matters at hand” — an apparent reference to the federal civil rights trial, where his words could be used against him.
“I do want to give my condolences to the Floyd family. There’s going to be some other information in the future that would be of interest. And I hope things will give you some peace of mind,” he said without further explanation.