Former policeman Derek Chauvin was sentenced to 22 and a half years in prison on Friday for the murder of African American George Floyd, the killing that sparked America’s biggest demonstrations for racial justice in decades.
The white, 45-year-old Chauvin gave his “condolences” to the Floyd family in a Minneapolis court before Judge Peter Cahill handed down a lesser sentence than the 30 years the prosecution had sought.
“The sentence is not based on emotion or sympathy,” said Cahill during a tense hearing in which the court watched a recorded message by Floyd’s seven-year-old daughter and heard from Chauvin’s mother.
He added that it had not been based “on public opinion” either but on the law and the facts specific to the case, as he acknowledged the “deep and tremendous pain” the case had caused, particularly to the Floyd family.
Their lawyer called the sentencing a “historic” step towards racial reconciliation in the United States.
“(It) brings the Floyd family and our nation one step closer to healing by delivering closure and accountability,” lawyer Ben Crump tweeted.
President Joe Biden weighed in saying: “I don’t know all the circumstances that were considered but it seems to me, under the guidelines, that seems to be appropriate.”
Chauvin, who has been behind bars since being convicted on three counts of murder and manslaughter two months ago, wore a light grey suit as he learnt his fate following a trial that captivated the world.
He spoke briefly, after declining to testify during his six-week trial.
“I do want to give my condolences to the Floyd family,” Chauvin said after removing his face mask.
“At this time due to some additional legal matters at hand, I’m not able to give a full formal statement at this time.
“There’s going to be some other information in the future that would be of interest and I hope things will give you some peace of mind,” he added.
Before he spoke, Carolyn Pawlenty said her son, Chauvin, was a “good man.”
“I have always believed in your innocence and I will never waver from that,” she said.
Earlier, the court watched a moving video from the late Floyd’s seven-year-old daughter, Gianna Floyd.
“I miss you and I love you,” the girl said when asked in the recorded message what she said would say to her father today.
Chauvin and three colleagues arrested Floyd, 46, in May 2020 on suspicion of having passed a fake $20 bill in a store in Minneapolis, a northern city of around 420,000. They handcuffed him and pinned him to the ground in the street.
Chauvin then knelt on the back of Floyd’s neck for nearly 10 minutes, indifferent to the dying man’s groans and to the pleas of distraught passers-by.
The scene, filmed and uploaded by a young woman, quickly went viral. After weeks of home confinement due to the Covid-19 pandemic, hundreds of thousands of people poured onto streets across the country and overseas, to demand an end to racism and police brutality.
It took weeks for the mass demonstrations to taper off, but the debate around the pressing social issues remains vivid in the United States, where President Joe Biden has been slow to come up with the police reforms he promised during his campaign.
Minnesota law provides for a minimum sentence of 12.5 years but Floyd’s brother, Terrence Floyd, his voice choking, told the court that Cahill should hand Chauvin the stiffest term possible.
He also urged Chauvin to explain the reason for the murder during an arrest last year.
“Why? What were you thinking? What was going through your head when you had your knee on my brother’s neck?” said Floyd.
Cahill identified aggravating circumstances that brought a heavier punishment.
In the pre-sentencing phase of the trial he said Chauvin had “abused his position of trust and authority,” treated Floyd with “particular cruelty” in front of minors and “committed the crime as a group with the active participation of at least three other” officers.
The judge declined to elaborate on how he had come to 22.5 years but said he would detail them in a lengthy written judgment.
Chauvin’s trial was closely followed by millions across the country.
His lawyer said he had followed police procedures in force at the time and that Floyd’s death was due to health problems exacerbated by drug use.
The jurors took less than 10 hours to convict. Their decision was greeted with a huge sigh of relief across the country. Many had feared an acquittal would lead to worse unrest, while others worried that once again a white police officer would get away with what they saw as murder.
With good behavior, Chauvin could serve just two-thirds of any prison sentence, with the remaining third on supervised release.