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Ex-officer Derek Chauvin pleads guilty to violating George Floyd's civil rights

Former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin has pleaded guilty to federal charges of violating George Floyd's civil rights, meaning he will not face a federal trial in January, though he could end up spending more time behind bars.

Chauvin was charged with 2 counts of depriving Floyd of his rights

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin listens earlier this year as the verdict is read in his trial for the 2020 death of George Floyd. (Court TV/The Associated Press)

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal charges of violating George Floyd's civil rights, averting a trial but likely extending the time he is already spending behind bars on a state conviction.

Chauvin, who is white, was convicted this spring of state murder and manslaughter charges for pinning his knee against Floyd's neck during a May 25, 2020, arrest as the Black man said he couldn't breathe. Chauvin was sentenced to 22½ years in that case.

In his federal plea Wednesday, Chauvin admitted he willfully deprived Floyd of his right to be free from unreasonable seizure, including unreasonable force by a police officer, by kneeling on Floyd's neck even though he was handcuffed and not resisting. A second federal count in Floyd's death was dismissed, but Chauvin pleaded guilty to another count in an unrelated 2017 case.

Chauvin appeared in person Wednesday for the change of plea hearing in an orange short-sleeved prison shirt. He said, "Guilty, your honour," to confirm his pleas, and acknowledged that he committed the acts alleged.

State sentence likely to amount to 15 years

Chauvin could have faced life in prison on the federal count, one possible incentive for him to avoid trial. Under the plea agreement, both sides agreed Chauvin should face a sentence ranging from 20 to 25 years, with prosecutors saying they would seek 25. The final sentence will be up to U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson, but Chauvin is likely to face more time behind bars than he would on the state charges alone.

Through a combination of good behaviour and parole, Chauvin's state sentence is likely to amount to 15 years behind bars. A federal sentence would run at the same time, and good behaviour also can reduce time — but inmates still typically serve about 85 per cent of their sentences.

That means if Chauvin gets the 25 years prosecutors want, he would likely spend 21 years and three months in prison — or a little more than six years beyond his state sentence.

Three other former officers — Thomas Lane, J. Kueng and Tou Thao — were indicted on federal charges alongside Chauvin earlier this year. They are still on course for trial early next year on those charges, with a state trial still to come.

Floyd's arrest and death, which a bystander captured on cellphone video, sparked mass protests nationwide calling for an end to racial inequality and police mistreatment of Black people.

In Minnesota, defendants with good behaviour serve two-thirds of their sentence in prison, and the remaining one-third on supervised release, also known as parole. Under that formula, he's expected to serve 15 years in prison on the state charges, and 7½ years on parole.

Pleaded guilty to unrelated charge

Under sentencing guidelines, Chauvin could get a federal penalty ranging from 27 years to more than 33 years in prison, with credit for taking responsibility, said Mark Osler, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. But the guidelines are not mandatory, and Osler estimated Chauvin would be sentenced toward the lower end of the range.

As part of the plea deal, Chauvin also pleaded guilty to violating the rights of a then-14-year-old boy during a 2017 arrest in which he held the boy by the throat, hit him in the head with a flashlight and held his knee on the boy's neck and upper back while he was prone, handcuffed and not resisting.

Several members of Floyd's family were present, as was the then-teenager involved in the 2017 arrest, according to a pool reporter. As they left the courtroom, Floyd's brother, Philonise, said to Chauvin's 2017 victim: "It's a good day for justice."

A mural of George Floyd stands in Minneapolis near the site of where he was killed by police in May 2020. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC)

Nine people appeared to support Chauvin, including family members. He waved and smiled at them as he entered and left the courtroom, according to the pool report.

George Floyd's nephew, Brandon Williams, afterward called Chauvin a "monster" who should have been arrested in the 2017 incident.

"Had he been held accountable for what he did in 2017 to that minor, George Floyd will still be here," Williams said. "Today he had a chance to blow kisses and give air hugs to his family. We can't do that."

High legal standard

An attorney for Floyd's family, Jeff Storms, said they planned to head to Minneapolis later in the day to support the family of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man who was fatally shot during a traffic stop in the midst of Chauvin's state trial. The police officer in that case, Kim Potter, is on trial on manslaughter charges.

To bring federal charges in deaths involving police, prosecutors must believe an officer acted under the "colour of law," or government authority, and willfully deprived someone of their constitutional rights. That's a high legal standard. An accident, bad judgment or simple negligence on the officer's part isn't enough to support federal charges. Prosecutors have to prove the officer knew what he was doing was wrong in that moment but did it anyway.

According to evidence in the state case against Chauvin, Kueng and Lane helped restrain the 46-year-old Floyd as he was on the ground — Kueng knelt on Floyd's back and Lane held down Floyd's legs. Thao held back bystanders and kept them from intervening during the 9½-minute restraint.

All four former officers were charged broadly in federal court with depriving Floyd of his rights while acting under government authority, but the federal indictment broke down the counts even further. The first count against Chauvin alleges he violated Floyd's right to be free from unreasonable seizure and unreasonable force by a police officer when he kept his knee on Floyd's neck, even after Floyd was unresponsive.

The second count alleges Chauvin willfully deprived Floyd of liberty without due process, including the right to be free from "deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs."

In the 2017 case involving the then-14-year-old boy, Chauvin was charged with depriving the boy, who was handcuffed and not resisting, of his right to be free of unreasonable force when he held him by the throat, hit him in the head with a flashlight and held his knee on the boy's neck and upper back while he was in a prone position.

According to a police report from that 2017 encounter, Chauvin wrote that the teen resisted arrest and after the teen was handcuffed, Chauvin "used body weight to pin" him to the floor. The boy was bleeding from the ear and needed two stitches.

That encounter was one of several mentioned in state court filings that prosecutors said showed Chauvin had used neck or head and upper body restraints seven times before dating back to 2014, including four times state prosecutors said he went too far and held the restraints "beyond the point when such force was needed under the circumstances."

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