The Minnesota Court of Appeals heard arguments this afternoon from prosecutors who wish to reintroduce a third-degree murder charge against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd, the Star Tribune reports.
Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes in May 2020, is scheduled to begin trial Monday on second-degree murder and manslaughter charges. Prosecutors had initially charged Chauvin with third-degree murder charges as well, but Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill dropped that charge in October, saying it did not fit in this case.
Minnesota statutes say that in order for third-degree murder charges to apply, the defendant had to have killed someone “by perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind,” for example, opening fire in a crowded shopping mall. The Star Tribune notes that the charge is commonly used to charge drug dealers in overdose cases.
In the case of Chauvin, Judge Cahill said that the defendants targeted George Floyd and no one else, therefore the charge does not apply.
However, on Feb. 1, the Court of Appeals upheld the third-degree murder charge in the case of another former Minneapolis police officer, Mohammed Noor—who was convicted of the 2017 shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond—ruling that the charge can apply when a single person is targeted.
That ruling prompted prosecutors to ask Cahill to reinstate the charge against Chauvin and add it to the charges for his co-defendants, but Cahill denied the request and voiced his objection to the Court of Appeals ruling. Prosecutors are now asking the Court of Appeals to overturn that ruling and uphold “its own interpretation of the law,” according to the StarTribune.
J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao, the other officers present when Floyd was killed, are set to begin trial together on Aug. 23. They face charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder as well as manslaughter, and prosecutors want to add a charge of aiding and abetting third-degree murder as well.
Experts told the Star Tribune that adding the third-degree murder charge gives jurors options with which to convict the former police officers, all of whom have since been fired from their jobs. Defense attorney Joe Friedberg believes the charges indicate the prosecution’s lack of a case.
“They’re scared … they can’t get a conviction,” he said in an interview last week. “They’ve got a problem on their hands, so they want to muddy the waters with third-degree murder, which is not applicable. I don’t blame them.”
More from the Star Tribune:
Minnesota sentencing guidelines call for identical presumptive prison terms for second- and third-degree murder — a term of 12 1/2 years in prison for someone with a clean criminal history and up to 20 years as the criminal history increases. However, the statutory language states that second-degree murder is punishable by up to 40 years in prison and third-degree murder is punishable by up to 25 years.
Jurors are provided copies of the charges and statutory language during deliberations, but not copies of Minnesota sentencing guidelines. Second-degree manslaughter is up to 10 years in prison and/or a $20,000 fine, according to state statute.
Prosecutors have said that in the event of convictions, they will seek aggravated sentences — longer terms than recommended by the state sentencing guidelines — due to the “particular cruelty” shown to Floyd and the “gratuitous pain” allegedly caused by the defendants.
The Court of Appeals has 90 days to give a decision, but Mitchell Hamline School of Law emeritus professor Joseph Daly believes the court will rule before that. He also noted that a decision in either direction could further delay the trial, as either the prosecution or the defense could seek a further review from the Minnesota Supreme Court.
“Ultimately, it’s really hard to predict what [the Court of Appeals is] going to do,” Daly said. “This case is so important, not just to the state of Minnesota, but it’s important to the nation—to the world.”
We will keep an eye on this, of course.