Minnesota judge who former colleagues and friends say has no penchant for publicity will once again find himself in the media spotlight this week when he convicts the former Minneapolis cop convicted of murder in death by George Floyd.
Judge Peter Cahill, who sat on the bench in Hennepin County for 14 years, could sentence Derek Chauvin to as little as probation, a result requested by his attorney, or more than the 30-year sentence favored by the prosecutors.
In interviews, people who know Cahill and the cases he oversaw say he’s likely to land somewhere in the middle. They said he was a fair judge, although there is no guarantee that he will inflict a punishment that will make both parties entirely happy.
“He was both a prosecutor and a defense attorney,” said Craig Cascarano, 72, a Minneapolis attorney in private practice who met Cahill at the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office when Cahill was a clerk. “So he understands what it’s like to do both jobs. And he’s trying really hard to do the right thing. “
Chauvin, who is white, was captured on graphic video on May 25, 2020, kneeling on Floyd’s neck for 9 and a half minutes, even after Floyd, who was black, said he couldn’t breathe. Floyd’s death sparked racial reckoning across the country and abroad. Chauvin and the three other former officers at the scene that day were charged with federal charges of violating Floyd’s civil rights.
Cahill will convict Chauvin on Friday, about two months after overseeing the trial which ended with his conviction for second and third degree murder, as well as second degree manslaughter. Cahill paved the way for Chauvin’s punishment of up to double the 15-year-old at the top of the range recommended by state guidelines, after ruling in May that there were four aggravating factors in Floyd’s death.
In court documents filed this month, prosecutors asked Cahill to sentence Chauvin to 30 years. Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, called for a downward deviation from sentencing guidelines or a probation sentence with time served.
Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor and a professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota law school, said he believes neither the defense nor the prosecution will get what they want.
“The defense request for probation is so outside the guidelines and would be such a departure from how these cases are normally handled that I think there is a zero percent chance that this is the outcome,” whoever the judge is, frankly, ”he said.
From 2008, the year he was elected to the bench, until January, Cahill sentenced six people convicted of second degree murder to prison. They received terms ranging from 12.5 years to 40 years.
In Cahill’s most recent unintentional second degree murder conviction – the most serious charge for which Chauvin has been convicted – he handed down a 15-year sentence. In this case, Matthew Witt pleaded guilty in January 2020 to unintentional second degree murder for beating his mother to death and first degree assault for violently assaulting his father on July 24, 2019, authorities said. He received an additional seven years for the latter charge.
In much of his other recent convictions, Cahill has deliberated on cases involving charges less serious than those for which Chauvin was convicted. But he had to make more publicized sentencing decisions.
In November 2019, he sentenced a man to seven years in prison for shooting a school bus and injuring his driver during a snowstorm in Minneapolis. The man, Kenneth Lilly, pleaded guilty to one count of first degree assault. Lilly said he feared for his life after the slow bus scuffed his sedan, an argument Cahill did not accept.
Cahill sentenced Lilly to more than double the three-year minimum the defense had requested. Prosecutors had requested an eight-year sentence.
Michael Cohlich, a defense attorney and friend of Cahill’s, said: “I certainly believe, and I don’t think anyone would dispute this, that he will not go beyond the guidelines. “
Having had business before Cahill, “and just after some of the big deals he’s done here in Minneapolis in Hennepin County,” Cohlich said, “I always remember thinking that basically it’s probably which I would have done if I had been seated in his place. “
Cahill was chosen by Hennepin District Chief Justice Toddrick Barnette to oversee Chauvin’s trial. Barnette declined, through a court spokesperson, to comment on his decision to attribute Cahill to the Chauvin case, referring NBC News to previous public statements.
“This moment is not too big for him,” Barnette told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in March. “He will make thoughtful legal decisions based on the law, even if the decisions are unpopular. “
Cahill, who declined an interview request, graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1984. That same year, he began working in the county public defender’s office as a deputy public defender. He worked at the Cohlich firm from 1987 to 1993.
Cohlich already knew him. He said Cahill was the “go-to clerk” when he worked in the county attorney’s office “as long as you needed anything in writing or research done”.
“And he also had a way of him with people, which is really important for a litigator and for a judge to be able to understand and respect people and at the same time do his job,” he added.
After leaving Cohlich’s cabinet, Cahill opened his own practice, which he led until 1997, when he became the assistant prosecutor for violent crimes for the county prosecutor’s office. He spent 10 years in the county attorney’s office, including seven as a deputy chief. He became chief deputy under Amy Klobuchar, now a state senator, while she was a county attorney.
Those who know Cahill have said his experience as a judge has proven to be beneficial.
Cascarano said he has tried cases against Cahill and before him with varying results.
When asked to describe what Cahill is like as a judge, he said the first word that comes to his mind is humble.
“He understands that a judge is there to kind of be the referee,” Cascarano said. “He’s going to call for balls and strikes, so to speak.” “
This was evident, he said, during Chauvin’s trial.
“He has been vigilant to ensure that this trial takes place in the fairest possible manner,” he said.
Cascarano gave as an example Cahill’s decision to recall the seven jurors who sat before a $ 27 million settlement was announced between Minneapolis and Floyd’s family. The judge questioned jurors about their ability to remain impartial after the announcement and dismissed two of them for reasons they couldn’t. Neither the defense, which had asked Cahill to delay or move the trial or recall the jurors, nor the prosecution, which argued that the jurors did not need to be recalled, succeeded in this case.
Like others who know Cahill, Cascarano has said he is smart, meticulous and diligent.
In one of his most publicized actions, Cahill in November 2015 dismissed accusations against the organizers of a massive Black Lives Matter rally that occurred in December 2014 at the Mall of America in Bloomington, which is a private property and does not allow demonstrations. In a 137-page decision, Cahill said he saw many hours of the protest and called it “peaceful.” He maintained trespassing charges against some participants.
Andrew Gordon, a lawyer who has represented at least eight people who have faced charges related to the protests that arose out of the rally, said Cahill “is nothing if not counted”. (At least two of his clients have gone on trial, one of whom has been convicted, Gordon said.)
“He spends a lot of time and effort thinking about his decisions and sometimes goes out of his way to explain too much what he’s doing,” said Gordon, deputy director of the Legal Rights Center, a non-profit law firm. profit from Minneapolis. “He’s a great communicator. “
He said Cahill had been fair in all the cases he had tried before him.
“I think Judge Cahill is well aware that he is not only punishing Derek Chauvin, but he is squarely in the middle of a larger conversation about whether the criminal court can only be in this type of case,” said Gordon said. “I don’t think anyone would be surprised if he followed the prosecution’s recommendation and sentenced Chauvin to 360 months. I wouldn’t be. “
In 2019, Cahill sentenced figure skating coach Thomas Incantalupo, who pleaded guilty to one count of criminal sexual behavior in the first degree and one count of criminal sexual behavior in the third degree, to 24 years in prison – close to the maximum penalty – for sexually abusing a figure skater when she was between 14 and 16 years old. The sentence was double the time Incantalupo lawyers requested and was three years less than the 27 years prosecutors requested. During the conviction, Cahill referred to a court document in which Incantalupo allegedly called the abuse “a deal.”
“It’s not cheating on your wife,” he told Incantalupo. “It’s a crime against a child. “
Civil rights attorney Brian Dunn, managing partner in the Los Angeles office of the Cochran law firm, said Cahill had convinced him with his handling of the Chauvin trial.
“I was a little skeptical at first given Judge Cahill’s refusal to allow prosecutors to reinstate the third degree murder charge which was later overturned by the Minnesota Court of Appeal,” he said. he declares. “However, I believed that Judge Cahill remained fair and impartial throughout the trial and in his evidentiary rulings, especially given the international coverage and real-time scrutiny of every moment. “
Osler, the law professor, said Cahill exhibited a lack of ego during the trial, which he said “is also an important part of his traditional personality.”
“What we have seen in Judge Cahill is recognizing that he was not the person most at stake in this televised trial,” he said. “That he understood the gravity of the situation, the dignity of the victim and the stakes for the accused. “