The murder of George Floyd

Explainer: How will judge’s ruling affect Chauvin sentence?

A man raises his hand and reads a sheet of paper
Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill swears in the jurors before opening statements in the trial of ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin charged in the killing of George Floyd on March 29.
Screenshot of Court TV video file

Derek Chauvin could face a much harsher prison sentence after a judge found several aggravating factors in George Floyd’s death.

Chauvin, 45, 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 about 9 1/2 minutes as the Black man said he couldn’t breathe.

Breaking down Chauvin’s potential sentence is complicated, but it starts with Minnesota statutes that call for him to be sentenced on only the most serious charge — second-degree murder, which has a maximum penalty of 40 years.

Legal experts said the practical maximum Chauvin would face is 30 years. And that’s an upper limit that Judge Peter Cahill put within reach in a ruling announced Wednesday. He sided with prosecutors’ arguments that Chauvin committed particular cruelty in Floyd’s death and abused his authority as a police officer.

Cahill is scheduled to sentence Chauvin on June 25.

Here’s a breakdown on the nuances in Minnesota sentencing and how they affect Chauvin’s case:

Why won’t we see multiple sentences for Chauvin?

Because all the charges stem from one act, carried out against one person. Multiple sentences are typically handed down in cases when there are convictions for multiple victims, or multiple crimes against one victim.

For example, if a defendant is convicted of kidnapping and sexually assaulting a woman — two crimes against one victim — a judge would issue a sentence on each count, and could rule that they be served at the same time or consecutively, said former Hennepin County chief public defender Mary Moriarty.

That’s not the case here, Moriarty said. “This case involved three different theories of the same behavior toward the same person.”

Is there another example of this?

In another high-profile murder case involving a Minneapolis officer, Mohamed Noor was convicted of third-degree murder and manslaughter in the 2017 shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond. Noor was sentenced to 12 1/2 years in prison on the third-degree murder conviction, but no penalty was issued for manslaughter.

If Noor’s murder charge is tossed out on appeal, which is pending, he would then be sentenced on that lesser count. Likewise, if Chauvin’s second-degree murder count is ultimately dismissed, he would be brought back to court for resentencing on the top remaining charge.

Why is it unlikely Chauvin will get the 40-year max?

Minnesota has sentencing guidelines that were created to establish rational, consistent sentences and ensure sentences are neutral without considering factors such as race or gender. The guidelines say that even though they are advisory, presumptive sentences “are deemed appropriate” and judges should only depart from them when “substantial and compelling circumstances can be identified and articulated.”

For second-degree unintentional murder, guidelines say the presumptive sentence for someone with no criminal record like Chauvin would be 12 1/2 years. Judges can sentence someone to as little as 10 years and eight months or as much as 15 years and still be within the advisory guideline range.

Prosecutors sought an upward departure for Chauvin, citing several aggravating factors including that Chauvin was a uniformed officer acting in a position of authority, and that his crime was witnessed by multiple children — including a 9-year-old girl who testified that watching the restraint made her “sad and kind of mad.”

What happened with aggravating factors?

Cahill’s decision was nearly a clean sweep for prosecutors. He agreed that Chauvin had abused his authority as a police officer and that he treated Floyd with particular cruelty. He also cited the presence of children when the crime was committed and the fact that Chauvin was part of a group with at least three other people.

The only point prosecutors failed to prove, Cahill wrote, was that Floyd was any more vulnerable than any other murder victim.

So what’s realistic?

Because Cahill found aggravating factors, he’s now allowed to sentence Chauvin above what the guidelines recommend for a person with no criminal record convicted of second-degree murder.

Still, experts have said the max will be 30 years — double the high end of the guideline range. If Cahill were to sentence Chauvin to anything above that, he risks having his decision reversed on appeal.

Mark Osler, a professor at University of St. Thomas School of Law, said the Minnesota Supreme Court set a standard maximum for upward departures in the 1981 State v. Evans case, finding that generally, when an upward departure is justified, “the upper limit will be double the presumptive sentence length.”

The court stressed that doubling the guideline range is only an upper limit and shouldn’t be automatic. The justices also left room for the rare case in which a judge would be justified in going even higher. Mitchell Hamline law professor Ted Sampsell-Jones said last year’s State v. Barthman opinion reaffirmed the Evans rule and “sent a signal” that sentences exceeding a doubling of guidelines “should be in fact extremely rare” and almost never happen.

Does anything else go into sentencing?

Osler said attorneys for both sides will now present arguments on whether an upward departure is appropriate and how long they believe the sentence should be. Cahill will also pore over a pre-sentence investigation report, which is usually nonpublic. It’s typically prepared by a probation officer and includes highly personal information such as family history and mental health issues. It also includes details of the offense and the harm it caused others and the community.

Time actually served?

No matter what sentence Chauvin gets, in Minnesota it’s presumed that a defendant with good behavior will serve two-thirds of the penalty in prison and the rest on supervised release, commonly known as parole.

That means if Chauvin is sentenced to 30 years, he would likely serve 20 behind bars, as long as he causes no problems in prison. Once on supervised release, he could be sent back to prison if he violates conditions of his parole.

Will we hear from Chauvin?

That’s hard to say. He has the right to make a statement during his sentencing hearing, but Moriarty said that can be tricky. While judges want people to take responsibility and be remorseful — and can take that into consideration in sentencing — a defendant also wouldn’t want to say anything that could jeopardize a possible appeal. Chauvin also faces new federal charges, alleging he violated Floyd’s civil rights.

“That’s the hard part because I think everybody, including family, wants to hear him say something about how he is sorry,” she said.