“The state expressly does not request that the court modify any part of (the) defendant’s 22.5-year sentence for the murder of George Floyd,” Ellison wrote.
But Ellison pressed Cahill to “correct the public record” and amend his analysis to “more accurately reflect the experiences” of the children who witnessed the killing and later testified at trial to “prevent potentially causing further harm by discounting the trauma suffered by these young girls.”
“Discounting the trauma of the children who testified at trial — in an authoritative judicial opinion, no less — will only exacerbate the trauma they have suffered,” Ellison wrote, pressing Cahill to “delete or modify” the sentencing memo’s observations about their trauma.
Prosecutors had argued for a tougher sentence for Chauvin, the White police officer who was filmed with his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes during the May 2020 encounter. They cited five aggravating factors, including that Floyd had been killed in front of children — three 17-year-olds and a 9-year-old.
In May, Cahill ruled that prosecutors had proven four of the five factors, including the presence of children, meriting a longer prison term. But in a memo disclosed after Chauvin’s sentencing hearing last month, the judge said after further analysis he had changed his mind and that he did not consider the child witnesses because “the evidence at trial did not present any indicia of trauma.”
In the memo, Cahill pointed to police body-camera footage that captured Darnella Frazier, who was 17 when she recorded Floyd’s death, “smiling and occasionally even laughing” with two other young girls at the scene — her cousin Judeah Reynolds, who was 9 at the time, and Alyssa Funari, who was 17.
In his letter, Ellison wrote that the girls were traumatized by witnessing Floyd’s death, even if their behavior in the body-camera footage didn’t show it at the time.
At the trial, Frazier cried on the stand as she testified about the lingering anxiety and guilt she feels after witnessing Floyd’s death and the fear she felt as she yelled for Chauvin to stop. “It’s been nights I stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life,” Frazier testified.
Ellison said the testimony of Frazier and others “belies” Cahill’s conclusion that the girls were not traumatized. He argued that the judge’s comments about their demeanor in the body-camera footage was “completely immaterial” because children “process traumatic experiences in ways that may seem unusual to the untrained eye” and that people of all ages often process trauma by “giggling or smiling.”
Cahill sided with Chauvin’s defense, which had argued that the girls were not victims because they weren’t physically threatened by Chauvin or the other officers present, and had been “free to leave the scene whenever they wished.”
Ellison called that suggestion “contrary to law and common sense.” “The responsibility of shielding a child from witnessing a crime should not fall on the child,” he wrote, adding that Frazier and the other girls had tried to intervene to save Floyd’s life. “Children should never be put in this position.”
Cahill repeatedly referred to all four as “young women” — a description that had raised eyebrows among those close to the case because of the implication that the judge didn’t see them as children.
Ellison called out the “adultification” of Black girls across society, including in the criminal justice system. He pointed to research that showed “adults view Black girls as less innocent and more adultlike than their white peers,” which has “led even careful observers to discount a young Black girl’s trauma.”
Cahill’s findings on trauma surprised legal observers who questioned whether he was equipped to make such a call. Trauma had apparently been on the judge’s mind. One juror said Cahill had recommended a therapist to members of the panel after the verdict to help them process weeks of emotional testimony and graphic video.
“What he wrote seems to be an indication that he has a real misunderstanding of what trauma is because it’s so contrary to what experts tell us,” said Mary Moriarty, former Hennepin County chief public defender.
She called Ellison’s letter “powerful” because it wasn’t seeking to extend Chauvin’s sentence but rather force the judicial system to confront and correct inherent biases, especially about Black trauma, which “is not something people in the system understand very well.”
In his letter, Ellison said he had the “utmost respect” for Cahill, pointing to his “tremendous efforts to reduce implicit bias in this trial.” But keeping the opinion as is, he wrote, would risk sending the message that the pain the girls “have endured is not real or does not matter, or worse, that it is a product of their own decisions and not a consequence of (the) defendant’s.”