Photo: Court TV, via AP, Pool.
Photo: Court TV, via AP, Pool.
Josh Skluzacek & Callan Gray
Updated: March 11, 2021 10:58 PM
Created: March 11, 2021 08:52 AM
A judge on Thursday granted prosecutors' request to add a third-degree murder charge against the former Minneapolis police officer charged in the death of George Floyd.
It happened within minutes of Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill walking into the courtroom for the day's proceedings.
“I have to follow the rule that the Court of Appeals has put in place specifically, that murder in the third degree applies even if the person's intent and acts are directed at a single person,” said Judge Cahill.
Judge Cahill reinstated the third-degree murder charge against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin a day after the Minnesota Supreme Court rejected Chauvin's effort to block the charge.
Chauvin was already charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter.
In February, the Court of Appeals made a decision in the Mohamed Noor case, which expanded the definition of third degree murder. Noor is the former Minneapolis Police officer convicted of the 2017 shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond.
Based on that decision, Attorney General Keith Ellison’s prosecuting team tried to get it reinstated in the Chauvin case.
“Upon reading the Noor opinion and realizing its application to this case, this court immediately turned to the rules to look for plain language as to when opinions that are marked as precedential have in fact that precedential effect,” said Cahill. “We found silence, not plain language … Because the rules were silent in this Court's view, our next step was to look for case law.”
Judge Cahill eventually denied the motion, arguing the Noor decision wasn’t precedent yet. Last week, the Court of Appeals ruled Cahill erred, which allowed the charge to be reinstated.
Chauvin's team requested a review with the Minnesota Supreme Court to prevent the addition of the charge but the court denied the review on Wednesday.
“Now, based on the defendants appeal, this Court of Appeals has made it very clear. Yes, I was bound from the moment the opinion was filed. And I accept that,” said Cahill.
University of St. Thomas Law Professor Mark Osler explained Judge Cahill didn’t have much choice.
“He didn’t have a lot of wiggle room and he was frustrated, I think that showed in the way he announced the decision,” said Osler. “The Court of Appeals sent this back and embedded in their ruling that said third degree murder, as we ruled in the Noor case, can apply when there is only one target of the dangerous act and that's the situation in Noor, that's the situation here and that really boxed in Judge Cahill.”
Going into jury selection, Chauvin faced second degree murder and second degree manslaughter charges.
“Third degree murder is a recklessness charge,” said Osler. “It means that you're taking an extremely dangerous act, eminently dangerous - as the term used in the statute - and so that is something that asks a different question than is in the second degree murder charge. That means that the jury is going to have more options to get to a murder conviction and that's good for the prosecution.”
He said however, it was important for both legal teams, to have the issue resolved right away on Thursday morning.
“They’re starting to craft their opening statements, how they’re going to make a presentation to that jury and that's going to include describing what the charges are,” said Osler. “If third degree is in the mix, that changes things.”
There could still be more developments ahead involving the third degree murder charge. The Minnesota Supreme Court is set to look at third degree murder as part of the Noor case in June.
According to Osler, the court could rule it doesn’t apply to cases like Noor’s or Chauvin’s. If that happens, Chauvin could use that as an argument for an appeal if he’s ultimately charged with third degree murder.
Potential jurors returned Thursday to continue the selection process that began Tuesday. After three jurors were seated Tuesday, two others were seated Wednesday, leaving nine seats left to be filled.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison released the following statement Thursday morning:
"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."
Click here to watch live coverage of the proceedings.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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