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Derek Chauvin pleads guilty to violating George Floyd's civil rights in federal court


Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pleaded guilty in federal court today to violating George Floyd's civil rights. Floyd's killing sparked international outrage and reignited a movement for Black Lives. And earlier this year, Chauvin was already convicted of George Floyd's murder by the state of Minnesota. Today's plea was in federal court, where Chauvin also pleaded guilty to a separate federal charge for depriving a 14-year-old boy of his civil rights. NPR's Leila Fadel joins us. Hey, Leila.


KELLY: Tell me a little bit more about what happened in this federal court hearing today.

FADEL: So basically, the government and Chauvin came to a plea agreement. Chauvin reversed his not guilty plea to guilty of willfully depriving George Floyd, a Black man, of his constitutional rights when Chauvin was a police officer and when he used excessive force that killed Floyd. As we all know now, there was a video of it, of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes until Floyd took his last breath. And in the spring, as you mentioned, Chauvin was convicted in a state court for murder and manslaughter, and he's serving his sentence of 22 and a half years in prison. As you also mentioned, he pled guilty in a separate federal case, and that was a 2017 incident in which Chauvin held a 14-year-old boy down by the throat and hit him in the head multiple times with a flashlight.

KELLY: Huh. What does this guilty plea today - what does it mean for how long Derek Chauvin might spend in prison?

FADEL: Right. So the U.S. attorney's office did ask for 25 years. That would run concurrently with Chauvin's state prison sentence, so it means he could serve a few more years in prison. That will be decided at a later hearing. And the impending sentencing also means Chauvin won't be eligible for supervised release in 15 years as he would have been under state law. And since it's not going to trial, he also won't face life in prison.

KELLY: What about for all the people watching this case, all the people in Minneapolis, what will it mean for them?

FADEL: Well, it means they escape the trauma of reliving the brutal killing of George Floyd through another trial. Nekima Levy Armstrong is a civil rights attorney in Minneapolis and a leading community activist, and I spoke to her just before Chauvin's hearing.

NEKIMA LEVY ARMSTRONG: The last trial was painful and excruciating for our community as well as the Floyd family. And we know that Derek Chauvin did what prosecutors are alleging that he did. So in this instance, it is a good thing that he has made the decision to accept responsibility.

FADEL: Now, there are three other officers facing state and federal charges in connection to George Floyd's killing, so we'll see if this influences their decisions on whether they make plea agreements or go to trial.

KELLY: So Leila, is this it? I mean, nothing undoes past wrongs, but is this as close as we're going to get to closing a very painful chapter, as we just heard, for the city, also for the Floyd family, for the country, for all of us?

FADEL: Yeah, these two cases, state and federal, were rare moments of accountability in one killing at the hands of police. I spoke to Brandon Buskey, the director of the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project, about what today meant.

BRANDON BUSKEY: It is a sign that there were negotiations between Mr. Chauvin and the federal prosecutors. And they were able to resolve this in a way that would give this case some measure of closure, even if it will never bring back George Floyd or promise broader reform in the broader effort to reform police.

FADEL: Now, Buskey says a federal charge like this, the willful violation of someone's civil rights, is typically very difficult to prove. So this plea agreement indicates the government had a strong case. And as much as this was a moment of accountability, it was, as I said, rare. Legal experts say one case can't solve the systemic issues that led to the killing of a Black man, George Floyd, by police. I spoke to Paul Butler, a Georgetown Law professor and a former federal prosecutor, about this.

PAUL BUTLER: It matters that we are seeing high-profile prosecutions of police officers who have committed violent, illegal acts against communities of color, especially Black men.

FADEL: But he says these individual cases are not tools of social transformation. That comes with policy change.

BUTLER: And so while it's important that we're seeing individual officers brought to justice for criminal acts against Black men, we have to keep in mind that every year U.S. police officers kill about 1,000 people. And in 2021, with these high-profile prosecutions of police officers, U.S. cops are right on track to kill about 1,000 people.

FADEL: And most of these killings are deemed lawful uses of force, and a disproportionate number of people killed are people of color.

KELLY: NPR's Leila Fadel. Thank you, Leila.

FADEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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