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Chauvin sentenced to 20 years for violating Floyd’s federal civil rights

Chauvin is already serving a 22½-year state sentence for Floyd’s murder.

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin addresses the court at his state sentencing hearing on June 25, 2021, in Minneapolis. (Pool/Court TV/AP)
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ST. PAUL, Minn. — Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer convicted last year of murdering George Floyd, was sentenced to 20 years in prison Thursday on a separate federal charge that he violated Floyd’s civil rights when he pressed his knees into the man’s neck and back and ignored his cries for help.

Chauvin, 46, pleaded guilty in December as part of a plea deal in which he publicly acknowledged his role in Floyd’s death. For the first time, the former officer admitted that he kept his knees on Floyd’s neck and body even as he heard the man saying he couldn’t breathe and ultimately became unresponsive. He acknowledged he heard bystanders urging him to check Floyd’s pulse but did nothing and blocked others from rendering medical aid. Chauvin also said that he “knew what he was doing was wrong.”

The plea deal, which Chauvin signed, recommended a federal sentence of 20 to 25 years. Last month, prosecutors pressed U.S. District Judge Paul A. Magnuson, who is overseeing the case, to sentence Chauvin to the full 25 years, arguing that the former officer’s actions were “coldblooded” and that he had abused his power as a police officer by failing to recognize the “humanity” of the person beneath his knees.

In a separate motion, Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney, had requested no more than a 20-year sentence, pointing to his client’s “acceptance of his wrongdoing” and that he is already serving a 22½-year state sentence for Floyd’s murder. He spoke of Chauvin’s “remorse for the harm that has flowed from his actions” and told the court the former officer would demonstrate that at his sentencing.

But in a brief statement during Thursday’s hearing, Chauvin did not offer any formal apologies or remorse for his actions. Addressing members of Floyd’s family, the former officer, who was dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit for the proceedings, said he wasn’t sure how many children Floyd had. “I just want to say I wish them all the best in their life,” Chauvin said, adding that he hoped they have “excellent guidance in becoming great adults.”

Chauvin also acknowledged the “unpleasant” decision facing Magnuson as he considered a sentence in a “politically charged environment.”

As part of the plea deal, prosecutors agreed to allow the former officer to serve his federal sentence concurrently with his state murder sentence. The deal also allowed Chauvin, who has been held in solitary confinement at a state prison east of St. Paul since his April 2021 conviction, to be transferred to a federal prison where he is likely to be safer — though in asking for a lesser sentence, Nelson argued that his client is likely to be a target no matter where he goes because of the notoriety surrounding the case.

But Chauvin’s sentence and the conditions of his confinement were ultimately determined by Magnuson, who strongly condemned Chauvin’s actions.

“I really don’t know why you did what you did. But to put your knee on someone else’s neck until they expire is simply wrong, and you must be punished,” Magnuson said. “Your conduct is wrong, and it is offensive. To put a knee on another person’s neck is unconscionable.”

Still, Magnuson sentenced Chauvin on the lower end of the sentencing request — 240 months for violating Floyd’s federal civil rights. He was given another five months for a second federal charge alleging he violated the civil rights of a 14-year-old by hitting him with a flashlight and kneeling on him during a 2017 arrest — which Chauvin also pleaded guilty to as part of the plea deal. John Pope, who is now 19, lost consciousness at one point during that encounter.

Chauvin was given seven months’ credit for time served, bringing the total sentence to 252 months, according to Magnuson.

Magnuson also oversaw the federal civil rights trial against the other three former officers who were at the scene of Floyd’s death. In February, a jury convicted J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas K. Lane and Tou Thao of violating Floyd’s civil rights by failing to render medical aid. Kueng and Thao were also found guilty of failing to intervene with Chauvin.

All three are still awaiting sentencing in that case. Kueng and Thao also face an Oct. 24 state trial on charges of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter. In May, Lane pleaded guilty to a manslaughter charge in Floyd’s death as part of a plea deal to avoid another trial. He’s scheduled to be sentenced in that case Sept. 21.

Magnuson’s sentencing decision for Chauvin is likely to have a direct impact on the punishment of the other officers. Last week, prosecutors suggested Lane should face a sentence of up to 6½ years in prison for failing to render medical aid to Floyd. In a separate motion, they said Kueng and Thao should face a “substantially higher” sentence than Lane but less than Chauvin’s sentence.

On Thursday, Magnuson not only condemned Chauvin for his actions but said the former officer had “absolutely destroyed the lives” of the other officers implicated in Floyd’s death.

Attorneys for Kueng, Lane and Thao have pressed Magnuson for leniency and suggested they are likely to appeal the jury’s decision. But observers are closely watching how the legal maneuvering could affect future legal proceedings, including whether Kueng and Thao reach plea deals to avoid state trial in Minneapolis, a city where many residents remain deeply traumatized by Floyd’s death.

Chauvin’s legal jeopardy is far from over. In May, Pope filed a separate federal civil rights lawsuit against Chauvin and the city of Minneapolis, arguing that police leaders turned a blind eye to Chauvin’s bad behavior and use of inappropriate force.

In court Thursday, Pope addressed Chauvin for the first time, speaking of how his life had changed after his encounter with Chauvin — how he went from being a “happy” person to someone who saw his dreams “slip from my hands.”

“I was treated as though I was not a human being by Derek Chauvin,” Pope said in a halting voice. “He made a choice and did not care for the outcome.”

During his statement to the court, Chauvin did not apologize to Pope but said he wished the man well. “I hope you have the ability to get the best education possible to lead a very productive and rewarding life,” the former officer said, turning back to face Pope.

Members of Floyd’s family attended Thursday’s hearing, including his brother, Philonise, who gave a victim impact statement on behalf of his family. He pressed for the “maximum sentence” for Chauvin, telling Magnuson of the continued nightmares he has suffered after seeing the viral video of his brother’s death.

“I haven’t had a real night’s sleep [since this happened], hearing my brother beg and plead for his life again and again … screaming for our mom,” Philonise Floyd told the court. He told the court that his family had received a “life sentence.” “We will never get George back,” he said.

Carolyn Pawlenty took the podium afterward, tearfully pleading for leniency for her son. She began her statement by criticizing the Minneapolis Police Department, pointing out that her son had spent nearly 20 years on the force and that leadership there had “failed” him by not standing behind him after Floyd’s death.

“My son did not wake up on May 25, 2020, and decide to kill someone,” Pawlenty said. “That was not his intent.” She also rebutted claims that Chauvin was a “racist” and didn’t have a heart. “He has a big heart,” she added. “Derek is a caring man who always put the needs of his family and friends above his own.”

She pleaded for Magnuson to send her son to a prison in Minnesota or Iowa, where his family could visit him. The judge later said he had no role in determining where Chauvin would serve his time but said he hoped it would be near his family.

Among those expressing diasppointment in Chauvin’s sentencing was Darnella Frazier, who was 17 when she stumbled on the scene of Floyd being restrained by police and filmed the viral video of his death. “I would be lying to myself if I said I feel happy about today,” Frazier wrote on Instagram. “It is disturbing. I don’t feel safe in this country because of cops like Chauvin.”