MCN/USA TODAY Network
April 24, 2021
Jurors in Minnesota took little more than 10 hours to convict Derek Chauvin of killing George Floyd. Guilty on all counts, offering a quick and decisive verdict in a case that riveted the nation.
The speedy result, announced in that Minneapolis courtroom, further highlights the unusual nature of Derek Chauvin’s prosecution and the exceedingly rare instance of a police officer on trial. The activation of National Guard troops and big city police on high alert intensified the fear—in the face of overwhelming evidence—the public had that Chauvin would be found not guilty.
Floyd’s death was depressingly familiar—the latest in a string of deaths at the hands of police—yet it was also an exceptional case. Brave onlookers knowing what they were seeing was a crime, videotaped the incident, showing Chauvin’s apparent “calm indifference” as he slowly squeezed the life out of Floyd, wrote David A. Graham of The Atlantic. “Condemnation came quickly—not only from many longtime critics of police violence and from ordinary citizens, but also from law-enforcement officers of all ranks around the country,” wrote Graham.
Law enforcement officers kill about 1,000 people a year across the United States. Since the beginning of 2005, 121 officers have been arrested on charges of murder or manslaughter in on-duty killings, according to data compiled by Philip M. Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Of the 95 officers whose cases have concluded, 44 were convicted, but often of a lesser charge, Stinson told the New York Times.
In this rare instance a police officer has been convicted of murder while on duty. The conviction resulted in a collective sigh of relief from big cities to tiny hamlets across the country. There were no violent protests, no riots, violence or unrest. Americans, from the President to John Q. Public, thought the jury’s verdict was correct and justice was served.
In the aftermath of this historic verdict, it would be smart to pause and consider what would be the prudent way forward. The verdict may be the impetus for meaningful reform. That momentum may be thwarted by the perception of a “lenient” sentence for Derek Chauvin. His sentence is scheduled for about eight weeks and already the media and talking-heads keep promoting the idea that Derek Chauvin could face 40 years in prison. Forty years in prison is unlikely and here is why.
A 2019 Prison Policy Institute report indicated that Minnesota has consistently ranked in the top five of American states with the lowest imprisonment rate. Minnesota has been ranked in the top five every year but one between 1980 and 2016.
The reason for the consistent low terms of imprisonment is, in part, because Minnesota, like a majority of states, has sentencing guidelines. That means a sentence imposed by a judge is not solely within the discretion of the judge.
The guidelines consist of a grid with two values, the prior history score and severity score. A defendant with a history of criminal convictions will receive a score from one to six. Every crime in Minnesota receives a severity score from one to eleven. The presumptive range of sentence is determined by where the two values meet on the grid.
Derek Chauvin has no prior record. Second degree murder scores a 10 on the severity scale. The range of sentences would be a minimum of 73 months to 103 months.
According to the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines, judges are required to comply with the presumptive sentencing ranges.
However, the rules define a process through which a court may deviate from the guidelines known as a “departure.” If there’s a compelling reason to support a departure, the judge may impose a sentence higher or lower than the presumptive range.
A sentence may be increased if the court finds the presence of aggravating circumstances. Conversely, the judge may reduce a sentence based on mitigating circumstances. Based on the guideline, getting anywhere near 40 years seems unlikely.
Chauvin’s conviction can be a watershed moment in policing reform, but unrealistic expectations regarding sentencing could lead to disappointment, distrust, or worse, unrest.
(Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino)
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