MINNEAPOLIS — Prosecutors have asked the judge who handled former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin’s murder trial in George Floyd’s death to rewrite his sentencing order to delete suggestions that child witnesses did not suffer trauma.
Attorney General Keith Ellison, in a filing released Thursday, stressed that he’s not seeking any change to Chauvin’s 22 1/2-year sentence. But he asked Judge Peter Cahill to revisit the document to remove suggestions that four girls who witnessed Floyd’s death and testified at Chauvin’s trial weren’t traumatized by what they saw. He cited research showing that children process trauma differently from adults and that adults tend to discount the impact of trauma on Black girls.
“Discounting the trauma of the children who testified at trial — in an authoritative judicial opinion, no less — will only exacerbate the trauma they have suffered,” Ellison wrote. “The Court should correct the public record to avoid that result.”
In his written analysis, Cahill noted he had previously found aggravating factors that allowed him to sentence Chauvin to 10 years above the presumptive penalty under state sentencing guidelines. Two factors justifying a higher sentence, he wrote, were Chauvin’s abuse of his position of trust or authority as an officer and his treating Floyd with particular cruelty,
Cahill also wrote that the presence of children at the scene, while an aggravating factor, didn’t justify a longer sentence. He agreed with the defense that the girls were free to leave at any time, and said the prosecution’s evidence didn’t establish that they had been traumatized. He noted that two were seen smiling and laughing as officers kept Floyd pinned down.
But Ellison noted that Darnella Frazier, who shot a widely seen social media video of Floyd’s demise, broke down crying on the stand while Alyssa Funari testified that she had been unable to return to the scene ever since.
“This evidence supports a commonsense conclusion: After they witnessed a brutal, minuteslong murder committed by police officers, the children suffered trauma,” the attorney general wrote.
Research shows that “children process trauma in sometimes counterintuitive ways” and that people “nervously laugh under stress.” Ellison wrote, adding that “a growing body of research suggests that observers discount the experiences of young Black girls” and tend to see them “as needing less protection and nurturing than white girls.”
“This phenomenon — known as ‘adultification’ — also means that observers can discount young Black girls’ trauma. … Such discounting can be especially harmful if it bears the imprimatur of authority,” he wrote.
Mary Moriarty, a former chief public defender for Hennepin County, said Ellison’s letter is “a big deal” even though it won’t change Chauvin’s sentence or affect his appeal. She said Cahill appeared to be “relying on some serious stereotypes” about Black girls in his sentencing memo, and that it reflected “a complete misunderstanding of how trauma works.”
“It’s really important that somebody in his position get this stuff right because people may read that, including these four girls, and draw conclusions about trauma that are simply not true,” Moriarty said.
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