Derek Chauvin pleaded guilty to civil-rights violations in two federal cases Wednesday morning in St. Paul, over his killing of George Floyd in May 2020 that touched off global protests.
Reversing his initial not-guilty pleas, Chauvin told U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson he abused his power as a police officer to deprive Floyd and a 14-year-old boy of their constitutional rights to be free from “unreasonable force.” In separate cases several years apart, he pinned both down with his knee.
In court Wednesday, Chauvin, 45, did not speak other than answering the judge’s questions. When prosecutors described the allegations, Chauvin replied “correct” to each count.
Chauvin still awaits sentencing for the federal felonies, which come on top of the 22 1⁄2 years in prison he’s currently serving for murder and manslaughter convictions in state court for Floyd’s killing. The pleas mean he will avoid two more lengthy trials and may focus on the process of appeals. The government is recommending a 300-month sentence, shorter than the life sentence he faced. He would serve the sentence concurrently with his state sentence, and in a federal prison, under the plea agreement.
Meanwhile, three of Chauvin’s former colleagues are still heading for back-to-back federal and state trials, on track to begin early next year, on charges they aided and abetted Chauvin in fatally detaining Floyd. Attorneys for J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao have all raised concerns that going to trial alongside Chauvin would have tainted the jury pool and prevented a fair trial. In removing himself from the equation Wednesday, Chauvin is in effect granting their wish.
Over the past 18 months, Chauvin’s case has drawn the ire of people across the planet who believe American policing suffers from a fundamental and lethal corruption. Others view Chauvin as the victim of a politicized trial. The case showed the deep chasm in public opinion over law enforcement in the country.
The Department of Justice began investigating Chauvin in the days after Floyd’s murder. As his state trial closed, federal prosecutors had gathered enough evidence for a charge, but they didn’t want to create a publicity frenzy that threatened the outcome, so they came up with a plan to charge and arrest Chauvin before he left the courthouse if a jury found him not guilty. After a jury convicted on all charges — a rarity in the history of the court system — the plan wasn’t necessary. A grand jury indicted Chauvin and the others weeks later on May 7.
The charges alleged Chauvin exploited the “color of the law” to deprive Floyd from his right to remain free from unreasonable seizure. “Chauvin held his left knee across George Floyd’s neck, and his right knee on Floyd’s back and arm, as George Floyd lay on the ground, handcuffed and unresisting, and kept his knees on Floyd’s neck and body even after Floyd became unresponsive,” said the indictment. “This offense resulted in bodily injury to, and the death of George Floyd.”
A second indictment arose from a past arrest that prosecutors in the state case attempted to submit as evidence of Chauvin’s brutal policing style. In 2017, he responded to a call from a mother who said her son and daughter assaulted her. Chauvin arrived to find the boy lying on his back looking at his phone, and when the teenager refused to comply with Chauvin’s order, Chauvin held him by the throat and repeatedly struck his face with a flashlight, a “dangerous weapon,” according to charges. “Chauvin held his knee on the neck and the upper back of Juvenile 1 even after Juvenile 1 was lying prone, handcuffed, and unresisting.”
Chauvin is a 19-year veteran of the Minneapolis police department. He was involved in at least two non-fatal shootings, and had a documented history of violence against people who did not follow orders, prior to killing Floyd. Though 17 complaints had been filed against him, Chauvin was only disciplined once. Instead of intervening, the department promoted Chauvin. During the fatal encounter with Floyd, he was a field-training officer for Kueng and Lane, who were rookies on the force.
The red flags in Chauvin’s history, which only became public because of the trial, cast a spotlight on Minneapolis’ failures to discipline problem officers and the department’s history of beating suspects in custody. The Justice Department is currently engaged in an investigation into whether Minneapolis police have promoted a “pattern and practice” of illegal behavior—more fallout for the city’s police force since Chauvin killed Floyd.