When Judge Peter Cahill sentenced former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin to 22.5 years in prison last month for the murder of George Floyd, the judge cited two aggravating factors for going above the recommended sentence of 12.5 years.
Chauvin had abused his position of trust and treated Floyd with particular cruelty, both of which were substantial and compelling reasons for a more severe sentence, Cahill wrote in a sentencing memo. At the same time, Cahill downplayed another factor — that four minors had witnessed the public murder — and wrote skeptically about their trauma.
“Although the State contends that all four of these young women were traumatized by witnessing this incident, the evidence at trial did not present any objective indicia of trauma,” Cahill wrote.
On Thursday, two weeks since the sentence, Minnesota prosecutors asked Cahill and the Hennepin County District Court to modify at least two pages of the memo, criticizing the judge’s conclusion that the minors did not experience trauma.
“(The) State asks that the Court modify two aspects of its analysis of the presence-of-children factor to correct the public record, more accurately reflect the experiences of the four children who witnessed Mr. Floyd’s murder and subsequently testified at trial, and prevent potentially causing further harm by discounting the trauma suffered by these young girls,” Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison wrote in the filing.
The state asked for the sentence to remain the same.
The filing comes months after Chauvin’s criminal trial featured testimony from four minors who witnessed the killing, including Darnella Frazier, the Pulitzer-recognized teen who filmed Floyd’s murder, her 9-year-old cousin, and two 17-year-old high school students. Each described the distress and fear they felt during and after Floyd’s murder.
Frazier, who testified through tears, said she saw her own Black father, brothers, cousins and friends in Floyd. “I look at that and I look at how that could have been one of them.”
She also testified she had lost sleep because the incident, nearly a year since his May 2020 death. “It’s been nights I’ve stayed up apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life,” Frazier, who was 17 at the time of Floyd’s death, testified.
The 9-year-old said she was “sad and kind of mad” watching Chauvin kneel on Floyd, and one of the students said she was “scared of Chauvin.”
Psychiatrist asks judge to amend memo
However, in his sentencing memo, Cahill wrote that the minor witnesses at the scene “are observed smiling and occasionally even laughing over the course of the several minutes,” and “these young women were free to leave the scene whenever they wished, were never coerced or forced by him or any of the other officers to remain a captive presence at the scene, and did not know any of the officers or Mr. Floyd.”
In the state’s filing Thursday, prosecutors offered a letter by Dr. Sarah Yvonne Vinson, a triple board-certified child and adolescent, adult and forensic psychiatrist, who argued laughter is not necessarily correlated with a lack of trauma.
“Considering the laughter in the larger context — including that the laughter was not sustained; that the children were witnessing a murder at the time; that their behavior and testimony on the stand reflected negative emotional internal states associated with the incident; and that they were developmentally immature given their young ages — the most reasonable explanation is that the laughter was a stress response,” wrote Vinson.
Separately, she said the murder of a black victim in the presence of a black witness can serve as another threatening source of trauma, specifically pointing to Frazier’s testimony.
“She testified that watching Mr. Floyd’s murder impacted her because, when she saw Mr. Floyd, she saw a Black man. In turn, she drew a connection between his safety — or lack thereof — and that of her Black male loved ones, including her father, her brothers, her cousins, and her friends,” Vinson wrote.
“(Frazier) broke down in tears on the stand. She also testified that she stayed up at night apologizing for not doing more to save George Floyd. Frankly, it is hard to imagine a more compelling and genuine indicium of trauma than (her) testimony,” wrote Ellison.
The Court had previously found four aggravating factors that could boost Chauvin’s sentence from the guideline range of 10 years and eight months to 15 years for the crime. However, the next step was “whether Chauvin’s conduct in connection with the offense for which he has been convicted renders his conduct significantly more serious than that typically involved in the commission of such an offense,” Judge Cahill wrote.
Cahill has yet to decide on modifying his sentencing memo. Under Minnesota law Chauvin will have to serve two-thirds of his sentence in prison (15 years), and he will be eligible for supervised release for the other 7.5 years. He is still within his 90-day window to appeal his case after his request for a new trial was denied by Cahill in late June.
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