Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill has reinstated a third-degree murder charge against the former Minneapolis police officer accused of killing George Floyd.
Cahill granted the request from prosecutors to reinstate the charge after the former officer, Derek Chauvin, failed to get the state Supreme Court to block it.
Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for about nine minutes May 25, is already charged with second-degree murder, which carries a maximum sentence of 40 years, as well as second-degree manslaughter. The third-degree murder charge carries a maximum sentence of 25 years.
Cahill dismissed the charge last fall because he believed that the circumstances of Chauvin’s case did not fit, but an appellate court ruling in an unrelated case established new grounds for it days before jury selection started. Cahill ruled at the time that a third-degree murder charge under Minnesota law requires proof that someone’s conduct was “eminently dangerous to others,” not just to Floyd.
Cahill said Thursday that he is now bound by a ruling, stemming from a recent decision involving the conviction of former officer Mohamed Noor, which stated that third-degree murder can be applied to acts directed toward a single person.
“I am granting the motion because although these cases are factually different — that is Noor and the case before us — I don’t think it’s a factual difference that weighs in favor of denying the motion to reinstate,” Cahill said.
Cahill said a legal principal had been established as precedent: “When the intent is directed at a single person, then third-degree murder may apply. Single acts directed at a single person fall within the gambit of murder in the third degree.”
“Accordingly, I am bound by that,” Cahill said.
Legal experts say the additional charge gives jurors another option to convict Chauvin of murder.
“The state must see it as a win, if they tried so hard to get it,” said Richard Frase, a criminal law professor at the University of Minnesota. “It gives them another way to get a murder conviction.”
Frase said that although he believes prosecutors “have at least as good a case on the second-degree murder charge,” the middle charge of third-degree murder allows a compromise verdict if any jurors resist convicting for a charge as high as second-degree murder.
“It also provides more scope for a plea bargain which sometimes happens even after jury selection has begun,” Frase said.
An appeals court ruled Friday that Cahill erred when he rejected the prosecution motion to reinstate the third-degree murder charge against Chauvin in October and ordered him to reconsider. Friday’s ruling said Cahill should have followed the precedent set by the appeals court last month when it affirmed the third-degree murder conviction of Noor in the 2017 shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, an Australian woman who had called 911 to report hearing a possible sexual assault happening.
“This court’s precedential opinion in Noor became binding authority on the date it was filed,” the three-judge panel said in the ruling Friday. “The district court therefore erred by concluding that it was not bound by the principles of law set forth in Noor and by denying the state’s motion to reinstate the charge of third-degree murder on that basis.”
Chauvin’s lawyer, Eric Nelson, had asked the Minnesota Supreme Court to reconsider Friday’s ruling. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court denied Chauvin’s effort to block the charge.
In a statement Thursday morning, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office is prosecuting Chauvin, said: “The charge of 3rd-degree murder, in addition to manslaughter and felony murder, reflects the gravity of the allegations against Mr. Chauvin. We look forward to presenting all three charges to the jury.”
On May 25, Floyd, a Black man, was arrested after a convenience store clerk claimed he used a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes. Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck while he was handcuffed. Chauvin remained in that position for about nine minutes, even as Floyd said that he couldn’t breathe. The incident was recorded by a bystander and widely shared on social media. Floyd’s death set off a series of nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice.
Chauvin and the three other officers who were at the scene were fired the day after Floyd’s death and later arrested. The other three officers — Thomas Lane, J. Kueng and Tou Thao — were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and manslaughter. They are expected to go to trial in August. Prosecutors want to add charges of aiding and abetting third-degree murder against them. Cahill said Thursday that that will be resolved later.
Six jurors have been seated after just two days of screening — a woman of color and five men, three of whom are white and one who is Black. The sixth juror, selected Thursday, said he is a truck driver and a fan of true crime podcasts.
Opening statements are likely to begin March 29 as scheduled.
Janelle Griffith is a national reporter for NBC News focusing on issues of race and policing.