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Derek Chauvin trial: Judge reinstates third-degree murder charge in George Floyd's death

CNN logo CNN 3/12/2021 By Brad Parks, Aaron Cooper and Eric Levenson, CNN
Stephen Jackson looking at the camera © Provided by CNN

Former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin now faces an additional murder charge in the death of George Floyd after a Hennepin County judge reinstated a count of third-degree murder on Thursday.

Chauvin already faced charges of second-degree unintentional murder and second-degree manslaughter. He has pleaded not guilty to all three charges.

The added charge provides prosecutors a third potential pathway to conviction in the closely watched case, which began Tuesday with jury selection at the heavily fortified Hennepin County Government Center.

"The charge of 3rd-degree murder, in addition to manslaughter and felony murder, reflects the gravity of the allegations against Mr. Chauvin," Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said in a statement. "We look forward to presenting all three charges to the jury."

Attorneys Ben Crump and Antonio Romanucci said in a statement Thursday night that they are "gratified" the judge has included a third-degree murder charge.

"The trial is very painful and the family needs closure. We're pleased that all judicial avenues are being explored and that the trial will move forward," the statement read.

Chauvin was initially charged with third-degree murder in the days after Floyd's May 2020 death, but Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter Cahill dismissed the count in October, saying it did not apply to this case.

However, an appeals court ruling in February in the case against former Minneapolis Police officer Mohamed Noor opened the door to reinstating the charge against Chauvin, and the state subsequently filed an appeal of Cahill's ruling.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals ordered Cahill to reconsider the motion to reinstate the charge last week. On Wednesday, the Minnesota Supreme Court refused a request by Chauvin's attorney to block the appellate court's decision, clearing the way for Cahill to reinstate the charge.

In court on Thursday, Chauvin's defense attorney Eric Nelson argued that Noor's case was factually and procedurally different than Chauvin's interactions with Floyd, in which he knelt on Floyd's head and neck area for an extended period. However, prosecutors argued that the judge was bound to follow the appeals court's precedent in Noor.

Judge Cahill ruled Thursday morning that he accepted the appeals court's ruling that the opinion in Noor's case immediately set a precedent, and he ruled to reinstate the charge.

He added that the third-degree murder charge only applied to Chauvin and that the potential to reinstate the charge for the three other officers charged in Floyd's death will be addressed at a later date.

What the charges mean

Third-degree murder, sometimes known as "depraved mind" or "depraved heart" murder, generally applies to a case in which a person does something eminently dangerous to others without regard for human life, such as randomly firing into a crowd or driving on the wrong side of the road.

The second-degree murder charge alleges that Chauvin unintentionally caused Floyd's death while committing third-degree assault, and the second-degree manslaughter charge alleges that Chauvin caused Floyd's death by his "culpable negligence."

If convicted, Chauvin could face up to 40 years in prison for second-degree murder, up to 25 years for third-degree murder, and up to 10 years for second-degree manslaughter.

The charges are to be considered separate, so Chauvin could be convicted of all, some or none of them.

David Weinstein, a former prosecutor who has closely followed the case, said that the charges each represent a different level of intent, so jurors will have more options to consider during deliberations.

"Choices like this can also allow for a compromise verdict by the jury," he said. "The defense would have preferred an all or nothing choice for jurors."

How we got here

Floyd's final moments were captured on disturbing police and bystander video, and his death led to unrest and fires in the city as well as worldwide protests against police brutality and racism. All four officers involved were fired and charged in Floyd's death. Chauvin is being tried separately due to coronavirus-related limits on courtroom space.

The charge of third-degree murder was most recently used in the murder trial of former officer Noor. He was convicted of the charge after prosecutors said he fired his gun at a person outside of his squad car's window, killing Justine Ruszczyk and endangering his own partner.

In October, Judge Cahill dropped the third-degree murder charge against Chauvin, ruling the charge can "be sustained only in situations in which the defendant's actions were 'eminently dangerous to other persons' and were not specifically directed at the particular person whose death occurred."

The evidence presented by the state does not show that Chauvin's actions were "eminently dangerous" to anyone but Floyd, he wrote at the time.

In Noor's case, though, an appeals court ruled that third-degree murder can be applied to instances in which a person applies force to a single person.

Given that ruling, Ellison filed a motion last month asking a district court judge to reinstate the charge, saying that Noor's sentencing set a new precedent. Appellate court Judge Michelle Larkin agreed, writing that the district court "erred" in denying the state's motion to reinstate the charge in light of the Noor opinion.

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