Why Derek Chauvin’s sentencing for murdering George Floyd is a rarity

(MINNEAPOLIS) — When Judge Peter Cahill took the bench in Minneapolis Friday for the sentencing of Derek Chauvin, he did something that is an extreme rarity in the U.S. legal system — punishing a now-former police officer convicted of murder while on duty.

In the past 16 years, just nine law enforcement officers before Chauvin have been sentenced to prison terms after being convicted of murdering people on the job, according to data released this week by the Police Integrity Research Group at Bowling Green State University, which tracks police arrests and prosecutions.

Chauvin, 45, who was convicted by a Hennepin County, Minnesota, jury of murdering George Floyd in 2020, is now the tenth, according to the data the group has been collecting since January 2005.

Cahill sentenced Chauvin to serve 22 1/2 years in prison, or 10 years longer than the 12 1/2 years recommended by the state’s presumptive sentencing guidelines.

The eleventh officer to be sentenced for murder on the job may come in quick succession, when William Darby, a Huntsville, Alabama, police is sentenced in August for the murder of a suicidal man, Jeffrey Parker, in 2018. An officer took the witness stand against Darby and testified she was attempting to de-escalate the situation after Parker threatened to shoot himself when Darby, who is still on the force, killed him.

“I think people need to understand that the fact that there was a prosecution at all is something that is very rare and largely unprecedented,” veteran Los Angeles civil rights lawyer Brian Dunn said of the Chauvin case in an interview with ABC News.

Rarer still, is the way Chauvin committed the murder. Seven of the nine officers sentenced for on-duty murders since 2005 shot their victims, said Philip Stinson, a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University and the lead investigator for the Police Integrity Research Group.

Floyd’s killing, which was captured on video, sparked a national uproar, a push for police reform and an unprecedented protest movement. Chauvin’s sentencing was equally charged, with family and advocates calling for the judge to give him the maximum of 40 years. Prosecutors asked for 30 years due to several aggravating factors, but the defense requested only probation because of Chauvin’s lack of criminal history and membership in a “broken” policing system.

In rendering his sentence, Cahill said his decision, which came with a 22-page memorandum, was “not based on emotion or sympathy,” nor was it based on “public opinion.” The judge, who based the sentence on the top conviction of second-degree unintentional murder, ruled that prosecutors proved beyond reasonable doubt four aggravating factors in the death of Floyd, which allowed him discretion to deviate from the recommended state sentencing guidelines and render a longer sentence.

“This is based on your abuse of a position of trust and authority and also the particular cruelty shown to George Floyd,” Cahill told Chauvin, citing two of the four aggravating factors.

While giving a victim impact statement in court on Friday, Floyd’s brother, Terrence Floyd, requested the maximum sentence and spoke directly to Chauvin, asking, “Why?”

“What was going through your mind when you had your knee on my brother’s neck?” Terrence Floyd, founder of We Are Floyd, a nonprofit dedicated to honoring George Floyd’s life through community service and leadership, asked Chauvin.

Prior to the sentencing hearing, Floyd’s cousin, Shareeduh Tate, president of the George Floyd Foundation, told ABC News that she wanted to see Chauvin get the maximum sentence “because the sentence I would like to see is not on the table.”

‘Incredibly rare occurrence’
A 2020 report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that 61.5 million U.S. residents age 16 or older had experienced some type of contact with the police in 2018, the latest data available. On average, on-duty officers fatally shoot roughly 1,000 civilians each year, according to the Police Integrity Group’s data.

Of the approximately 16,000 fatal shootings since 2005, 143 nonfederal law enforcement officers have faced homicide charges, the data shows. Fifty-three of those officers were acquitted or had their cases dismissed, and another 45 either pleaded guilty or were convicted of lesser crimes than murder ranging from manslaughter to negligent homicide. The outcomes of homicide cases against the remaining 45 officers charged are pending, according to the data.

In his 26 years of representing the loved ones of more than 100 people who have died at the hands of police, Dunn, managing partner of The Cochran Firm in Los Angeles, told ABC News that in the vast majority of deadly use-of-force cases, police officers never face criminal charges, making the Chauvin murder conviction and sentencing particularly uncommon.

Chauvin was convicted of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter stemming from the May 25, 2020, fatal attempted arrest of Floyd. In bystander video, the 46-year-old could be seen begging for his life as Chauvin knelt on the back of his neck for more than nine minutes.

“And then when you take it to the next step that there was not only a prosecution but a conviction of a crime for a police officer in the line of duty and the conviction was for second-degree murder, these are, in terms of American legal jurisprudence, incredibly rare occurrences,” Dunn said. “You’ve got to look at the fact that this is something that’s long overdue. We want to try to establish police accountability, but you’re not going to go from zero to 100 miles an hour overnight.”

Dunn said another anomaly of the Chauvin trial was the parade of Minneapolis police officers and brass, including Chief Medaria Arradondo, to take the witness stand and counter claims by Chauvin’s defense team that the restraint used on Floyd, including putting a knee on his neck, are part of the use-of-force techniques he learned in department-issued training.

“I’m not under any illusions that we’re going to right all the historical wrongs that have been in our justice system as it relates to police accountability in one case or overnight,” Dunn said. “The only thing we can realistically hope for is that we create a system of accountability that creates a different world for our children than the one we lived in.”

Former Minneapolis cop Mohamed Noor got 12 1/2 years
Stinson, a former police officer, told ABC News that the average sentence for law enforcement officers convicted of on-duty murder is 16.4 years, based on shooting data and state guidelines.

“But it’s really apples and oranges because it’s not a shooting first of all, but secondly it’s really hard to make these comparisons and use data from across state lines,” Stinson said.

Some police officers convicted of on-duty murders have gotten less than 16.4 years or received a sentence in keeping with the recommended state guidelines. Former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, convicted of second-degree murder in the 2014 shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, is serving a sentence of a little less than seven years, while Kenneth T. Bluew, a former Buena Vista, Michigan, police officer, and Marcus Eberhart, a former sergeant for the East Point, Georgia, police department, were both given life in prison.

The only other Minnesota police officer convicted of murder on the job is former Minneapolis cop Mohamed Noor. He was sentenced to 12 1/2 years in prison after being found guilty of third-degree murder for the 2017 shooting of 40-year-old Justine Ruzczyk Damond after she called 911 to report an assault in progress near her home.

Several other police officers have been convicted since 2005 of committing murder while off duty, including Amber Guyger, a former Dallas Police officer, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for shooting her 26-year-old neighbor Botham Jean after she mistook his apartment for her own and thought he was an intruder.

‘Sign of progress’
Later this year, former Auburn, Washington, police officer Jeffrey Nelson is scheduled to go on trial for second-degree murder and first-degree assault in the May 2019 on-duty shooting of Jesse Sarey, 26. Nelson is the first officer charged under Washington’s new excessive use of force Initiative 940, which makes it easier to prosecute police officers by removing a requirement that the state show an officer acted with malice. Nelson has pleaded not guilty, claiming he acted in self-defense.

Tentatively scheduled to go on trial in August is Aaron Dean, a former Fort Worth, Texas, police officer charged with murder in the shooting of 28-year-old Atatiana Jefferson on Oct. 12, 2019, while conducting a welfare check at her family’s home. Dean has pleaded not guilty.

Civil rights advocates like Dunn said they see the prosecutions as a “sign of progress.”

“It doesn’t mean that what happened to him (Chauvin) is going to make everything right. He’s just one guy,” Dunn told ABC News. “But if just one officer thinks twice about shooting a kid running away from him, that’s progress That’s huge progress.”

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.