What will a child remember of a murdered father, slain by a cop?
Gianna Floyd is only seven, a year removed from her dad’s death under the knee of then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, a killing witnessed on video by untold millions around the world because a teenage girl had the presence of mind to tape it on her phone.
One hopes Gianna hasn’t seen the footage, but, doubtless, eventually she will.
“Well, I was asking how did my dad get hurt?” the youngster told a courtroom on Friday afternoon, in a victim statement conducted by remote video.
“I want to play with him, have fun, go on a plane ride.
“We used to have dinner every single night before we went to bed and Daddy helped me brush my teeth.”
Of course, these are the moments a child would recollect. And she spoke very much as if George Floyd was here, present in her life.
“Yeah, but he is.”
The child speaks truth. In many ways, unprecedented ways, George Floyd walks among us still — for his legacy, for his unwitting martyrdom, for how profoundly his killing shook America and the social justice movement his death birthed.
And the kernel of justice is this: Chauvin has been sentenced to 22½ years in prison, the longest term ever delivered to a police officer (former) in the state of Minnesota.
Not the maximum that was sought by Floyd’s family and the prosecution, which was 30 years. Certainly not the absurdity that had been urged upon Judge Peter Cahill by the defence: probation and time served, which as of Friday was 199 days.
Outside the courthouse, where the barricades erected for Chauvin’s trial in April have long since been removed, the crowd awaiting Cahill’s sentence was thinner and calmer that it had been months earlier, a year earlier, when Minneapolis had been the throbbing core of protests and riots and rage.
After the exhale on conviction by a jury on charges of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree murder, what hung in the balance was how much Black lives matter.
A great deal, was the answer.
Two hundred and seventy months added to the presumptive sentence of 10 years, which was the starting point for Cahill, who took into account several aggravating factors: abuse of authority in Chauvin’s position of authority as a police authority; that Chauvin treated Floyd with particular cruelty — nine minutes and 29 seconds with his knees on Floyd’s throat as the man pleaded for his life, as bystanders including an off-duty firefighter were prevented from giving Floyd medical assistance; that the crime was committed in the presence of children.
Under Minnesota statutes, Chauvin could be sentenced only on the most serious of the three counts, because all charges stemmed from one act, carried out against one person. Twenty-two-and-a-half years is within the range most legal experts had predicted. Chauvin was facing a maximum sentence of 40 years.
Chauvin, who didn’t take the stand at trial, has never expressed remorse, which might be excused because of legal ramifications. He’s appealing both the verdict and the fact that he was trial wasn’t moved to another jurisdiction. Cahill ruled against that application mere hours before the sentencing hearing.
He could, however, have at least offered his regret, without compromising any future judicial proceedings.
In brief remarks before Cahill pronounced sentence, Chauvin rose to tell the court: “At this time, due to additional legal matters at hand, I’m not able to give a full formal statement …. Briefly though, I do want to give my condolences to the Floyd family. 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. Thank you.”
It is impossible to speculate what was going through Chauvin’s mind, although social media condemned his flat effect. But there’s not much that can be read from a person’s demeanour when a pandemic mask covers half his face.
Remember that all of this anguish, this loss of life, this turmoil in America’s soul, resulted from an arrest on May 25, 2020, outside a coffee shop, with Floyd, 46, suspected of paying for a pack of cigarettes with a counterfeit $20-bill. That misdemeanour, which has never been proven, extinguished his life, the breath choked out of him by the weight of Chauvin’s knee on his neck as he lay prone on the pavement, cuffed, unthreatening to anyone. Sobbing for his mama until suffocated by an illegal chokehold.
There is irony too, offensive irony, in presentencing submissions by the defence asserting that Chauvin was himself the victim of a “broken system,” as if he, too, was an extension of wayward policing practices he had no reason to believe were wrong, conduct typical of officers everywhere.
Which is really the turning point of this entire case and its cascading impacts.
Chauvin didn’t follow training.
And the evidence, most critically the damning video, was overwhelming.
The Friday sentencing began with four victim impact statements: the poignant but heart-wrenching video from Floyd’s daughter, his youngest child, two brothers and a nephew, each acutely affected not just by the loss of a beloved family member but also what they’ve had to watch and endure for more than a year.
From New York City came the dead man’s brother, Terrence Floyd.
“Any family member that has went through this … we are part of a fraternity of families and it’s not one of those fraternities that you enjoy.
“I wanted to know from the man himself: why? What were you thinking? What was going through your head when you had your knee on my brother’s neck? When you knew that he posed no threat anymore, he was handcuffed, why you didn’t at least get up, why you stayed there?”
From Chauvin, no answers, no explanation, except at the remove of his defence team.
Another brother, Philonise Floyd, has gone from anonymous trucker to an apostle for justice who’s spoken at the United Nations, to audiences from Canada to Africa to Japan, so that his brother’s death would not be in vain.
“Every day, I have begged for justice to be served, reliving the execution of George, why others begged and pleaded for Officer Chauvin to simply allow George to take a breath. I haven’t had a real night’s sleep because of the nightmares I constantly have hearing my brother beg and plead for his life over and over again. He was saying, ‘They’re going to kill me,’ screaming for our mama.
“I have had to sit through each day of Officer Derek Chauvin’s trial and watch the video of George dying over and over again,’ ” he said, wiping tears with a handkerchief. “For an entire year, I’ve had to relive George being tortured to death every hour of the day ….”
From Floyd’s nephew, Brandon Williams: “The sudden murder of George has forever traumatized us. You may see us cry, but the full extent of our pain and trauma will never be seen with the naked eye. The heartbreaking hurt goes far beyond any number of tears we could ever cry.”
Words can’t express the pain, said Williams. “It has been truly unimaginable. But not nearly as unimaginable as the defendant’s decision to take the life of a human being with no regard for the effect it may have on others.
“George’s murder, this trial, and everything in between has been tragically devastating. Our family is forever broken and one thing we cannot get back is George Floyd.”
Speaking on behalf of 45-year-old Chauvin, and for the first time publicly, was his mother, Carolyn Pawlenty. She tried mightily to present a different version of the defendant, whom she described as honourable, selfless and caring.
“It has been difficult for me to hear and read what the media, the public and prosecution team believe Derek to be: an aggressive, heartless and uncaring person. I can tell you that is far from the truth. My son’s identity has also been reduced to that of a racist. I want this court to know that none of these things are true and that my son is a good man.”
A good man? A convicted murderer.
Lead defence lawyer Eric Nelson contended again that the societal upheaval of this killing could not be kept outside the courtroom.
“This case is at the epicentre of a cultural and political divide.”
Any sentence, said Nelson, would be viewed as either overly lenient or draconian.
“The impact that this case has had on the community is profound. It goes far beyond what happened on May 25 of last year. It has been at the forefront of our national consciousness. It has weaved its way into nearly every facet of our lives, from the entertainment that we consume to presidential politics, from protests to conspiracy theories.”
He never lived to see it, could not possibly have imagined the breadth of it, but George Floyd’s life mattered.
The tragic part is that his death mattered more.
Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist covering sports and current affairs for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno