Derek Chauvin Trial May Be Delayed Over Court Ruling on Third-Degree Murder

The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Friday ruled that a lower court must reconsider whether to add a third-degree murder charge against Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who is scheduled to go on trial next week for the death of George Floyd.

The ruling, coming just days before jury selection in Mr. Chauvin’s trial was set to begin on Monday, also raises the possibility of a delay in the trial. The unanimous decision by the appeals court means that the trial court will likely again hear arguments from Mr. Chauvin and prosecutors from the Minnesota attorney general’s office over whether Mr. Chauvin should face the third-degree murder charge.

He is already facing a more serious charge of second-degree murder, as well as second-degree manslaughter. A third-degree murder charge would give prosecutors an additional avenue to win a conviction.

Mr. Chauvin’s lawyer, Eric J. Nelson, could appeal the ruling to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Third-degree murder was the first charge Mr. Chauvin faced after he was arrested in the days following Mr. Floyd’s death on May 25. At the time, the charge prompted on outcry from both activists and lawyers, who said Mr. Chauvin should face a more severe charge and that a third-degree murder charge did not fit the circumstances of Mr. Floyd’s death.

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Credit…Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, via Associated Press

Third-degree murder in Minnesota, they noted, has long been understood as an act — “evinced with a depraved mind,” according to the statute — that is dangerous to a group of people, rather than one person. An often cited example is a suspect who fires a gun randomly into a passing train, or someone who drives a car in to a crowd. In addition, drug dealers have often been prosecuted with third-degree murder in Minnesota when one of their customers dies of an overdose.

Going by that interpretation of third-degree murder, Jude Peter A. Cahill, who is presiding over Mr. Chauvin’s trial, dismissed the charge last fall and upheld the other charges.

But a recent decision by the Court of Appeals in a separate case appeared to reshape the interpretation of third-degree murder. Upholding a conviction of third-degree murder for Mohamed Noor, a former police officer who shot and killed a woman while on duty, the court determined that third-degree murder could be applied in a case in which the suspect’s actions were dangerous to a single person.

Judge Cahill said he disagreed with that appeals court decision when prosecutors recently sought to reintroduce the third-degree murder charge, which carries up to 25 years in prison if convicted, and that it was not binding because the Minnesota Supreme Court could still overturn it.

The appeals court judges wrote in an 18-page decision on Friday that Judge Cahill had erred by saying he was not required to follow the precedent of the Noor case. The judges ordered the lower court to reconsider the state’s motion to add back the third-degree murder charge and said that Mr. Chauvin would again have the opportunity to argue against it.

Opening statements in Mr. Chauvin’s trial were expected to begin on March 29, after a weekslong jury selection process. City officials have erected security barriers around government buildings and business owners have begun boarding up storefronts. The National Guard has also been deployed to secure the city and contain any protests the trial may provoke.

The death of Mr. Floyd, who gasped for air while Mr. Chauvin pressed him to the concrete with his knee outside of a convenience store, was captured on video from a bystander’s cellphone and prompted widespread protests in Minneapolis and cities and towns across the country. The episode began when a clerk at the convenience store in South Minneapolis called 911 and said Mr. Floyd had tried to use a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes.

Three other officers who were seen in the video trying to arrest Mr. Floyd, two of whom were rookies, were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter and are scheduled to go on trial in August. They were fired with Mr. Chauvin one day after Mr. Floyd’s death.

Just days after Mr. Floyd died, Mr. Chauvin agreed to plead guilty to third-degree murder and go to prison for more than 10 years, but the plea deal was upended when it was rejected by William P. Barr, who was then the United States attorney general.

The federal government had been in talks to sign onto the plea deal so Mr. Chauvin would not face federal charges in the future. But Mr. Barr ultimately rejected the deal, in part because Minnesota’s attorney general, Keith Ellison, was preparing to take over the case from the county prosecutor, and Mr. Barr wanted to let Mr. Ellison decide whether to negotiate a plea or take the case to trial.

Third-degree murder was the first charge Mr. Chauvin faced after he was arrested in the days following Mr. Floyd’s death on May 25. At the time, the charge prompted on outcry from both activists and lawyers, who said Mr. Chauvin should face a more severe charge and that a third-degree murder charge did not fit the circumstances of Mr. Floyd’s death.

Third-degree murder in Minnesota, they noted, has long been understood as an act — “evinced with a depraved mind,” according to the statute — that is dangerous to a group of people, rather than one person. An often cited example is a suspect who fires a gun randomly into a passing train, or someone who drives a car in to a crowd. In addition, drug dealers have often been prosecuted with third-degree murder in Minnesota when one of their customers dies of an overdose.

Going by that interpretation of third-degree murder, Jude Peter A. Cahill, who is presiding over Mr. Chauvin’s trial, dismissed the charge last fall and upheld the other charges.

But a recent decision by the Court of Appeals in a separate case appeared to reshape the interpretation of third-degree murder. Upholding a conviction of third-degree murder for Mohamed Noor, a former police officer who shot and killed a woman while on duty, the court determined that third-degree murder could be applied in a case in which the suspect’s actions were dangerous to a single person.

The federal government had been in talks to sign onto the plea deal so Mr. Chauvin would not face federal charges in the future. But Mr. Barr ultimately rejected the deal, in part because Minnesota’s attorney general, Keith Ellison, was preparing to take over the case from the county prosecutor, and Mr. Barr wanted to let Mr. Ellison decide whether to negotiate a plea or take the case to trial.

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