Prosecutors want stiff sentences for ex-cops charged in George Floyd’s killing

Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao. Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder of George Floyd. Kueng, Lane and Thao have been charged with aiding and abetting Chauvin. (Hennepin County Sheriff's Office/TNS)
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By Rochelle Olson Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (TNS)

MINNEAPOLIS — Prosecutors further explained Monday in a formal court filing why four former Minneapolis police officers should face longer sentences if they are convicted in the May 25 killing of George Floyd.

Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill told prosecutors at a hearing last month that he wanted additional detail on the grounds for what is known as “upward departures” in their sentences. Cahill asked whether two criteria applied: the position of trust the officers held, and Floyd’s vulnerability.

In a five-page memo filed by Matthew Frank from Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office, prosecutors said that both grounds could be used to justify longer sentences for the officers who detained Floyd on suspicion of passing a counterfeit bill at a south Minneapolis convenience store on May 25.

When they arrived at Cup Foods in full uniform, the officers held a “defined relationship” of authority over Floyd, which they used to “dominate and control” him, prosecutors wrote. They handcuffed him, pinned him to the ground and ultimately killed him, their memo says.

Prosecutors have previously requested longer-than-recommended sentences for former officers Derek Chauvin, his partner, Tou Thao, and the initial arresting officers, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane.

Chauvin is the officer who was captured on video kneeling on Floyd’s neck for roughly nine minutes. He is charged with second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Kueng, Lane and Thao each are charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter. Kueng pinned Floyd’s torso and Lane controlled his legs, while Thao kept the angry crowd away from the officers and Floyd.

Cahill had asked the prosecutors to explain whether the officers were in a position of authority — one reason for an enhanced sentence — even though there was no “pre-existing relationship” between them and Floyd.

Prosecutors cited an appellate ruling that endorsed longer sentences when there’s a power imbalance that makes it difficult for the victim to protect himself. “Such ‘power imbalances’ may be present even when a defendant occupies a position of authority but has no pre-existing relationship with the victim,” Frank argued.

The courts also allow longer sentences when a victim is vulnerable due to reduced physical or mental capacity.

Frank wrote that the defendants made Floyd vulnerable when they handcuffed him and pinned him to the pavement.

Cahill had asked for the additional memo during a hearing last month on defense motions to dismiss the charges against the former officers, to hold separate trials for the four men, and to move any trial outside of Hennepin County. Cahill has yet to rule on those motions. Trial is set for March 8.

Earl Gray, Lane’s defense attorney, said the request for an upward sentencing departure is an attempt to poison the potential pool of jurors. “They first have to get a conviction,” he said.

Eric Nelson, who represents Chauvin, and Robert Paule, who represents Thao, declined to comment. Thomas Plunkett, who represents Kueng, could not be reached Monday afternoon.

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