Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer convicted of murdering George Floyd with a knee pressed to his neck, should receive no prison time or far less than the maximum sentence because he is the product of a “broken system,” his defense attorney wrote in a court filing Wednesday.
Prosecutors argued in a brief filed Wednesday that Chauvin’s “actions traumatized Mr. Floyd’s family, the bystanders who watched Mr. Floyd die, and the community. And his conduct shocked the Nation’s conscience.”
Chauvin, 45, was convicted of second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death in May 2020, which spurred mass protests and a national reckoning around systemic racism and police brutality.
Chauvin is set to be sentenced June 25.
He faces a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison because the judge overseeing the case concluded he abused his position of trust and authority, among other aggravating factors.
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Chauvin has been in prison awaiting sentencing since April 21 and would get credit for time served. Eric Nelson, his attorney, wrote in the filing that Chauvin is in solitary confinement in a high-security prison because he is likely to be targeted by other prisoners.
Three other officers involved in the incident face charges of aiding and abetting Floyd’s murder. They are scheduled to be tried in 2022.
All four officers have been charged in federal court with violating Floyd’s civil rights during the arrest. Chauvin made his first appearance in that case Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department is investigating the Minneapolis Police Department for a systemic violations of people’s civil rights.
Defense attorney: Chauvin was ‘an average man’ before incident
In Wednesday’s filing, Nelson wrote that Chauvin was born to a “loving mother, father, and sister,” served in the military, and received high scores on reviews during 19 years as a police officer.
“In the eyes of the public, Mr. Chauvin has been reduced to this incident, and he has been painted as a dangerous man,” Nelson wrote. “However, behind the politics, Mr. Chauvin is still a human being. Before this incident occurred, Mr. Chauvin was an average man with a loving family and close friends. He was a husband, stepfather, uncle, brother, and son.”
In this April 20, 2021, file image from video, defendant, former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, listens to verdicts at his trial for the 2020 death of George Floyd at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis. Chauvin, convicted of murder in the death of Floyd is scheduled to make his initial appearance via videoconference, Tuesday, June 1, 2021, on federal charges that he violated Floyd's civil rights when he placed his knee on the Black man's neck, pinning him to the street. (Photo: Court TV via AP, Pool, File)
Chauvin has the backing of his ex-wife and her family, Nelson wrote, and he has received thousands of letters of support from around the world since his arrest. “Mr. Chauvin has the support network he needs to succeed as he moves past this incident,” Nelson wrote. “Therefore, probation is appropriate for Mr. Chauvin.”
Legal observers expected the request for a lower sentence than sentencing guidelines call for. But they said the defense’s filing was offensive because Nelson provided no evidence that Chauvin is apologetic and instead appealed to sympathy.
“Based upon Chauvin’s status as a veteran officer and his egregious conduct in murdering George Floyd in the manner in which he did, Chauvin should be held to a higher standard, not a lower one,” said Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney and former president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP.
“Chauvin deserves the highest punishment possible under the law for what he did,” she said.
Floyd was handcuffed, face-down on the street, after Minneapolis police officers responded to a convenience store’s complaint that he had used a counterfeit $20 bill.
Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s back and neck for roughly 9 1/2 minutes as Floyd repeatedly cried out, “I can’t breathe,” and onlookers recorded it on their cell phones.
Even after Floyd had no pulse, Chauvin remained in position until a paramedic waved him away so he could load Floyd onto a gurney.
In arguing for the maximum sentence, prosecutors wrote that Chauvin’s abuse of trust and the manner in which he killed Floyd, “was especially heinous because it was viewed by children, who risk being traumatized for the rest of their lives.”
‘Absolutely no acceptance of responsibility’
The appeal to sympathy is unlikely to be effective, said Joseph Daly, a professor with the Mitchell-Hamline School of Law in neighboring St. Paul.
Nelson “has not adequately addressed the final few moments of Mr. Floyd’s life, while he (Chauvin) continued to kneel on his body even after no pulse was found,” Daly said. “That reality alone” calls for a higher sentence, he said.
While the defense’s filing says a presentence investigation found Chauvin had no criminal history, it does not say Chauvin made a statement to a probation officer. That was a wasted opportunity to express remorse, said Mary Moriarty, the former chief public defender for Hennepin County.
Judges sometimes lower a prison sentence when a defendant accepts responsibility for his actions. Though the federal case means Chauvin would be unlikely to admit responsibility, “you see the opposite of that in this memo,” Moriarty said.
“He thought he was doing his job,” she said. “There’s absolutely no acceptance of responsibility” or remorse for Floyd’s death.
For Sarah Davis, executive director of the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis, the defense’s filing is “a continuation of the deeply racist defense strategy that we saw throughout the trial.” During the trial, Nelson suggested the crowd of mostly Black onlookers was an angry mob and focused on Floyd’s illicit drug use.
Nelson’s filing doesn’t elaborate on what “broken system” Chauvin was the product of.
Typically, Moriarty said, that reference evokes images of “huge racial disparities and a system that’s been designed that way from enslavement to Jim Crowe to mass incarceration.”
She said the filing demonstrates the privilege Chauvin has compared to those who truly are victims of a “broken system” — people who can’t afford to get bailed out of jail as they await trial and can’t easily be “properly dressed” in court, as Nelson described Chauvin in his memo.
Chauvin “had every advantage, including being a police officer,” she said.
Armstrong said it is clear that Chauvin is the “poster child for why the system is broken. We must stop the practice of allowing police officers to have so much power over Black lives and very little accountability when they abuse that power.”
Chauvin has appealed his conviction. Nelson maintained throughout the trial that the intense public interest tainted the jury pool, and the judge should have changed the venue or sequestered the jury.
In another filing Wednesday, Nelson argues those factors denied Chauvin a fair trial, and that a new trial should be held elsewhere.
Tami Abdollah is a USA TODAY national correspondent covering inequities in the criminal justice system, send tips via direct message @latams or email tami(at)usatoday.com
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