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Opinion This is what Derek Chauvin’s sentence should be

Derek Chauvin in a photo from the Hennepin County jail on May 31, 2020. (Hennepin County Jail/AFP via Getty Images)
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Eighteen years.

That would be the most appropriate sentence for Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer convicted of second-degree murder in the death of George Floyd in one of the most high-profile criminal trials in U.S. history.

Some Black Lives Matter activists, and probably Floyd’s family, hope Chauvin receives the 40-year maximum that Minnesota law establishes for Murder 2. (Chauvin was also convicted of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter but, under state law, his sentence is based only on the most severe offense.)

To be sure, Chauvin’s crime was heinous. As the whole world knows, he kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds — including, most egregiously, for at least two minutes after he became aware that Floyd had no pulse. While the presumptive sentence in Minnesota for a second-degree murderer with no previous criminal convictions is between 12 and 15 years, Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill ruled in May that there are “aggravated” factors that allow him to at least double that time. They include that Chauvin abused his position as a law enforcement officer, that he acted with particular cruelty and that he committed his crimes in front of children. The prosecution is seeking 30 years.

Chauvin’s defense attorney, on the other hand, is asking for probation. This is patently poor lawyering because, besides being an insult to the memory of George Floyd, it demonstrates profound disrespect for the jury’s verdict.

Defense attorney Eric Nelson gave his closing statement in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on April 19. (Video: The Washington Post)

Sentencing a convicted criminal is more art than science. A judge typically considers deterrence — in this case, sending a message to other cops that, if they abuse their badge as Chauvin did, they will be severely punished. Retribution, the concept that a criminal should be disciplined in line with the harm they caused, is another key factor.

If deterrence actually works as it’s supposed to — and there is vigorous debate about whether it does — almost any sentence beyond a slap on the wrist would be sufficient, because no reasonable police officer wants to do any prison time.

The desire for retribution is understandable when someone has taken an innocent life, but ought, in a civilized society, to be constrained by dictates of justice and mercy, even when the criminal himself has acted inhumanely. A pure retributive sentence would mean that Chauvin should get the death penalty, which Minnesota has outlawed since 1911. In this case, even a life sentence would be excessive because the prosecution presented no evidence that Chauvin, even in his depraved state of mind, intended to kill Floyd. The most serious punishment must be reserved for the absolute worst criminals.

People convicted of crime do longer sentences in the United States than in almost any other country in the world. The nation is the world’s leading jailer, with people of color disproportionately represented. The movement for Black lives is, appropriately, leading the fight against mass incarceration at the same time it is demanding more accountability for policing.

Keeping it real, I wouldn’t be too mad if the judge throws the book at Chauvin. He is not exactly the face of sentencing reform. But principles are best demonstrated by hard cases. The truth is, 18 years is a very long time in prison. Chauvin would not be getting away with anything, and it’s in the best long-term interests of racial justice in America if punishment is based less on emotion and more on reason.

At his sentencing Friday, Chauvin will have the option of addressing the court. A good defense attorney would have spent the weeks since the guilty verdict was announced pleading with his client to use this opportunity to accept responsibility and express remorse to Floyd’s family and the community. If Chauvin maintains the same impassivity he demonstrated throughout the trial, Judge Cahill might decide to add a few years to whatever sentence he has carefully calculated in advance. Chauvin needs to go well beyond the weak claim in the sentencing memorandum submitted by his lawyer that his act is “best described as an error made in good faith reliance [on] his own experience as a police officer and the training he had received.”

Maybe it’s crazy to hope that a convicted murderer provides some kind of catharsis for the community horrified by his crime. But it would mean something if Chauvin sincerely acknowledges that he committed an atrocious act for which he deserves punishment.

In 18 years, Derek Chauvin will be 63 years old. The United States in 2039 will be a different place, and it will have a population close to majority non-White. But if American cops are still killing about 1,000 people a year — as they have for the six years The Post has tracked police killings — George Floyd will have died in vain. Whether Chauvin gets 15 years or 40 years won’t change that. The most important focus for our country should be on transforming the institution of policing, rather than on one rotten-apple cop.

Police may have power but without transparency and accountability, they will fail the public they serve, says national law enforcement expert Cedric Alexander. (Video: Ray Whitehouse, Emefa Agawu, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

Read more:

W. Seth Martin: I felt relief when Chauvin was convicted. I’m still unsure Minneapolis has changed.

Philonise Floyd: For my brother George Floyd, this is what justice feels like

James Hohmann: Derek Chauvin’s conviction should be an inflection point, but it won’t happen automatically

Radley Balko: This is what it took for Derek Chauvin to be convicted

Eugene Robinson: Derek Chauvin’s conviction shouldn’t feel like a victory. But it does.

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