Appeals court rules third-degree murder charge against Derek Chauvin shouldn’t have been tossed

A Minnesota appeals court ruled Friday that a third-degree murder charge should be reinstated against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, accused of killing George Floyd with a knee on Floyd’s neck last May.

The Chauvin murder trial is scheduled to begin Monday with jury selection. He already faces second-degree murder and manslaughter charges.

It’s unclear what effect the ruling will have on that schedule. Defense attorney Eric Nelson has argued that he is unprepared to argue the additional charge. He declined to comment on the ruling Friday. 

The Minnesota Supreme Court has decided to review another case involving a third-degree murder conviction of a police officer, involving former Minneapolis police officer Muhammed Noor.

Reckless disregard for human life or tragic accident? Derek Chauvin goes on trial, charged with murder of George Floyd.

Should the Supreme Court ultimately rule Noor should not have been convicted of third-degree murder, that’s likely to strip the Chauvin case of the third-degree charge. 

At the heart of the appeals court case was the question of whether police officers can be charged with third-degree murder during an incident in which they dealtwith only one other person.

According to Minnesota law, third-degree murder involves “perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind.” The word “others” was the focal point of the appeals court hearings.

“The courts are scrambling to solve this problem (and) scrambling to figure out how to move these cases through,” said Ted Sampsell-Jones, a law professor at Mitchell Hamline College of Law in St. Paul.

In late May, Chauvin was charged with multiple counts of murder, including one count of third-degree murder, for his role in Floyd’s death. Floyd died May 25 after being pinned to the ground by Chauvin. Floyd, who was handcuffed, cried out repeatedly that he couldn’t breathe.

The incident was captured on video and sparked protests around the country against police brutality and systemic racism.

Last fall, Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill threw out the third-degree murder charge due to a reading of the state law that holds that it applies only when a defendant has put multiple people in danger and someone dies. 

Often prosecutors add other charges to enable the jury to choose among different options.

“I don’t think they think they can get a conviction for second-degree murder and they want this in as a compromise for the jury,” said Joe Friedberg, a longtime Minnesota criminal defense attorney. The irony, he said, is that sentencing guidelines for both are 155 months.

Meanwhile, in February, the appeals court upheld the third-degree murder conviction of Noor, who fatally shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond in 2017. Because the ruling allowed such a charge to remain despite the involvement of only one victim, prosecutors in the Chauvin case asked Cahill to bring back the third-degree murder charge. 

Cahill, however, disagreed with the Court of Appeals ruling on Noor and refused. That’s when prosecutors went to the Court of Appeals to ask it to uphold its interpretation of the law and reinstate the additional charge.

With Friday’s ruling the court reversed Cahill’s decision not to add the third-degree murder charge back. The appeals court sent the case back to Cahill.

Chauvin has the option of appealing the Appeal’s Court decision to the state Supreme Court and delaying the start of the trial.

Three other officers have also been charged in connected with Floyd’s death and will face trial in August. 

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