Appeals court judges weigh reinstating 3rd-degree murder charge for Chauvin after hearing arguments

Updated: March 01, 2021 06:08 PM
Created: March 01, 2021 05:44 AM

Monday, the Minnesota Court of Appeals heard arguments on whether a third-degree murder charge should be reinstated against former police officer Derek Chauvin.

Three appellate court justices asked questions of attorneys on both sides of the Chauvin trial and said they will issue an expedited decision.

The state is asking the Court of Appeals to reinstate a third-degree charge because of this same court's recent decision in the Mohamed Noor case.

Legal experts say reinstating the lesser count could increase the prosecution’s odds of getting a murder conviction in what will be one of Minnesota’s highest-profile trials ever. 

“Without action from this court, a landmark criminal case, one of the most important in our nation’s history, will take place with a major part of the case — third-degree murder — missing. Nowhere in it whatsoever,” prosecutor Neal Katyal told the appeals court. “That can’t possibly be the law.”

The appeals judges grilled defense attorney Eric Nelson over his contention that they should ignore their own precedent simply because Noor has appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court, so the law over what constitutes third-degree murder in Minnesota hasn't reached a final resolution. Nelson argued that Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill got it right last month when he declined to reinstate the charge despite the Noor ruling.

“When the Supreme Court does grant review of our cases, it typically does not vacate our decision or issue any order limiting our decision,” Appeals Judge Michelle Larkin said.

Cahill ruled last October 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 there was no evidence that Chauvin’s actions were dangerous to anyone else and threw out the charge.

But the Court of Appeals rejected similar legal reasoning in Noor's case, ruling that a third-degree murder conviction can be sustained even if the action that caused a death was directed at just one person. Noor last week appealed that ruling to the Minnesota Supreme Court. The high court said Monday it will hear oral arguments in Noor's case in June.

With opening arguments in Chauvin's case just four weeks away, Katyal told the judges that the trial court must follow the Court of Appeals' precedent from the Noor case unless and until the state Supreme Court reverses it.

Nelson countered that the ruling in Noor's case won't have the full force of law until the process runs its course at the Supreme Court, which could take several months or even longer. He also said Chauvin's defense team has been preparing for months on the assumption that it wouldn’t have to defend him against a third-degree murder charge, so reinstating it would violate his constitutional rights to a fair trial and to present a complete defense.

Another thorny issue is what should happen if Chauvin is convicted of third-degree murder but the Minnesota Supreme Court later throws out the precedent that the appeals court set in the Noor case. Nelson said Chauvin could appeal his conviction if the Noor ruling is overturned, “but he would have to do it from the confines of a prison cell.”

Just last month, the court upheld Noor's third-degree murder conviction.

However, St. Thomas law professor Rachel Moran said the judge overseeing Chauvin's case felt that because Noor still has other options to appeal his conviction, it could not be applied.

So, what happens next?

"That is the question everyone probably wants an answer to,” Moran said. “It's possible that Judge Cahill would go forward with the trial as planned. They do have three weeks set aside for jury selection, so during that time the attorneys could also be preparing for any changes in the strategy in the new charge or the court could say, based on the late addition of this charge, we have to postpone the trial.”

Moran said it is unusual to be so close to the start of the trial and still not know what Chauvin will be officially charged with.

Moran added this appeal could have an impact on Chauvin’s trial start date, depending on when the ruling comes down and what is decided.

Also Monday, the Minneapolis City Council discussed their plans and preparations for community safety ahead of Chauvin's trial.

Jury selection is set to start one week from Monday.

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