Jurisprudence

Derek Chauvin’s Trial Isn’t Over Yet

It’s way too soon to know how long he’ll be in prison.

Derek Chauvin stands and looks toward the judge while wearing a mask and a suit with his hands behind his back
Derek Chauvin stands in the courtroom on Tuesday after a jury finds him guilty in the killing of George Floyd. Pool via Reuters

Now that a jury has found Derek Chauvin guilty in the killing of George Floyd, the former Minneapolis police officer’s fate lies in the hands of Judge Peter A. Cahill, who oversaw the trial. Cahill has immense discretion in sentencing Chauvin; the judge will even engage in additional fact-finding that could extend the defendant’s prison term. Depending on Cahill’s views of the defendant and his crime, Chauvin could receive a sentence of between 12.5 years and 40 years.

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Prosecutors brought three charges against Chauvin: second-degree unintentional murder (also known as felony murder), which carries a maximum sentence of 40 years; third-degree murder, which carries a maximum of 25 years; and second-degree manslaughter, which carries a maximum of 10 years. He was found guilty on all three counts. Under state law, Chauvin will be sentenced only for the most serious crime, felony murder. Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines counsel Cahill to impose a penalty on the lower end because Chauvin has no criminal history. If the judge follows these guidelines strictly and does not find any aggravating circumstances, he will sentence Chauvin to 12.5 years.

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But there is a catch: Prosecutors are seeking to prove the existence of aggravating circumstances that would justify an upward departure from Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines. They have identified three such circumstances: first, that Chauvin killed Floyd in front of children (hence the extensive testimony of child witnesses at trial); second, that Chauvin treated Floyd with “particular cruelty”; and third, that Chauvin “abused his position of authority” as a law enforcement officer. The Supreme Court has held that Chauvin has a constitutional right to require the jury to find each aggravating circumstance beyond a reasonable doubt. However, the defendant waived this right, which means Cahill, not the jury, will decide whether prosecutors proved the presence of these circumstances. If the judge does find aggravating factors, he can impose a higher sentence, extending Chauvin’s prison term by several years—though, as a general rule, courts may impose no more than double the top of the sentencing guidelines, which would bring Chauvin’s sentence to a maximum of 30 years.

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There is another complication to add to this mix: It appears that federal prosecutors are considering bringing civil rights charges against Chauvin, presumably for violating Floyd’s rights under color of law—that is, exceeding and abusing his legal authority as a law enforcement officer. The New York Times has reported that the Justice Department launched a federal investigation into the crime under Donald Trump, but the investigation languished until Joe Biden assumed the presidency and prioritized the probe. According to the Times, the Justice Department impaneled a grand jury focused on Chauvin in February. During the state trial, Hennepin County Medical Examiner Andrew Baker confirmed this reporting when he mentioned that he had testified before a federal grand jury.

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If Chauvin is tried and convicted on federal charges, he could receive a federal prison term of many years. (In theory, he could even face a life sentence, though it is highly unlikely.) The interplay between state and federal sentences is extremely complicated and differs from case to case. But the upshot is that a federal conviction for a civil rights offense could add many years onto Chauvin’s prison term well beyond the sentence handed down by Cahill.

The jury’s verdict on Tuesday marked the beginning of a new chapter in the Floyd case. Indeed, the fact-finding portion of the trial is not even over; Cahill will need to rule on the presence of aggravating circumstances, then go through the complex calculation in the sentencing guidelines to land on a term of incarceration that he deems just. On the horizon, there is the possibility of yet another trial, this one in federal court, and another sentence that dramatically extends Chauvin’s time behind bars. It may be years before we find out the precise punishment that Chauvin will receive for the crime for which he was found guilty on Tuesday afternoon.

Update, April 20, 2021: This article has been updated to clarify that the state sentences cannot run consecutively.

To understand more about how police training perpetuates a culture of fear and, sometimes, violence, listen to this recent episode of What Next.

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