Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
After months of uncertainty, Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis officer charged with George Floyd’s murder, will face an additional third-degree murder charge, giving the state another pathway to convicting him.
Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill reinstated the charge Thursday morning, just short of a week since prosecutors successfully won their appeal. Now, in addition to proving Chauvin committed an act to purposefully harm Floyd when he kneeled on the 46-year-old Black man’s neck for more than 9 minutes, prosecutors can also try to convince the jury that those actions caused Floyd’s death, regardless of intent.
That could make convicting Chauvin of at least one charge easier. But it’s not that simple. Third-degree murder charges are typically reserved for situations where the crime in question endangered others, instead of a single person. The attorney general’s office had originally charged Chauvin with third-degree murder when they arrested him last year, but Cahill decided Chauvin’s actions did not endanger the public at large.
The defense will likely make that same argument against the new charge.
“It’s certainly an easy argument for the defense team to make that third-degree murder charges don’t apply because Derek Chauvin was interacting with a very specific individual,” Andrew Gordon, Deputy Director of Community Legal Services at the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis, told VICE News.
Prosecutors had appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals in February to reinstate the charge —and won last Friday.
Chauvin now faces three charges in total: second-degree murder, which carries a penalty of 40 years in prison; third-degree murder, which carries a max penalty of 25 years; and second-degree manslaughter charge, which carries a penalty of 10 years in prison. If he’s found guilty of both second and third-degree murder, Chauvin will likely only face the penalty of the most severe charge.
“The charge of third-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 Thursday. “We look forward to presenting all three charges to the jury.”
The Court of Appeals’ decision to grant prosecutors their request to reinstate the third-degree murder charge stems from a new precedent set by another criminal case involving Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor. In 2017, Noor was found guilty of third-degree murder after fatally shooting an unarmed woman outside of her home—as well as endangering his partner who was standing nearby when he fired his gun.
On Wednesday, the Minnesota Supreme Court rejected Chauvin’s request to challenge the Court of Appeals’ decision to reinstate the charges. As a result, Cahill said his hands were tied against dropping the charges as he ruled in October.
Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney tried to bring up several arguments against the decision, including the distinction that his client did not use an instrument capable of harming others such as a gun. Nelson’s efforts ultimately failed as the judge ruled his hands were tied by the decision hands down by the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.
The uncertainty of the pending third-degree murder charge has hung over the trial of the former Minneapolis police officer and even delayed its beginning by a day. Jury selection didn’t start until Tuesday.
“In reality, the new charges shouldn’t have that much of an impact on the jury selection process,” Gordon said, “as attorneys were prohibited from really getting into the facts of the case during jury selection, and only talking about trial strategy.”
So far, five people have been seated to the jury that will decide Chauvin’s fate. In the first few days of the selection process, support for both the Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter movement has played a major role in who gets a spot in the court room.
The jury selection process is expected to last another two weeks. Opening arguments are expected to begin on March 29.