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Chauvin Trial: Judge Reinstates 3rd-Degree Murder Charge Over George Floyd's Killing

Derek Chauvin will face a third-degree murder charge in the death of George Floyd, after a district court judge reversed his earlier ruling on Thursday.
MPR News/Screenshot by NPR
Derek Chauvin will face a third-degree murder charge in the death of George Floyd, after a district court judge reversed his earlier ruling on Thursday.

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin will face an additional charge of third-degree murder, Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill ruled on Thursday, after an appeals court ordered Cahill to reconsider his earlier decision to dismiss the charge.

"The court is going to grant the motion to reinstate" the charge, Cahill said as he announced his decision.

The ruling came as a third day of jury selection was set to begin in the trial over the killing of George Floyd. Chauvin was already facing manslaughter and second-degree murder charges when the much-anticipated trial opened this week.

Chauvin's defense team had sought to block the additional murder charge, but the Minnesota Supreme Court denied the request for review, in a decision that was issued Wednesday afternoon.

Last Friday, the Court of Appeals ordered Cahill to reexamine the third-degree charge based on the precedent set by a recent appeals court ruling. The judge had initially found that ruling, in the case of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, was not a precedent for the Chauvin case.

On Thursday, Cahill said he now agrees with the higher court, and that its precedent takes effect immediately.

"I feel bound by that," the judge said, "and I feel it would be an abuse of discretion not to grant the [prosecution's] motion."

Noor was found guilty of third-degree murder in the killing of a woman outside her home. Prosecutors argued that the appeals court's ruling in that case supports the charge against Chauvin.

Chauvin's attorney, Eric Nelson, argued in court Thursday that the cases are different. At one point, he noted that in the Noor case, the officer had clearly put other people at risk when, seated in a car, he leaned over and fired his weapon through his partner's window.

When Cahill threw out the third-degree murder charge last fall, he ruled that prosecutors could not show probable cause that Chauvin's actions had placed people other than Floyd at risk. But he said the recent appeals court ruling changes the standard.

"Even though they are factually different, I have to follow the rule that the Court of Appeals has put in place," Cahill said, "specifically that murder in the third degree applies even if the person's intent and acts are directed at a single person."

Rights activists are also keeping the Noor case in mind as they watch the Chauvin case, because of the reversal of races: Noor is Black and the woman he killed was white; Chauvin is white and Floyd was Black.

The Hennepin County Medical Examiner ruled last June that George Floyd's death was a homicide, saying that his heart and lungs stopped functioning "while being restrained."

The autopsy report cited neck compression – Chauvin was seen holding his knee on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes – but it also noted "other significant conditions," including fentanyl intoxication, recent methamphetamine use, and signs of heart disease.

Floyd's death inflamed nationwide protests that quickly spread around the world, as people expressed outrage over the dramatic video in which Chauvin is seen pinning Floyd to the asphalt.

"Please, please. I can't breathe," Floyd repeatedly said before he died.

Five jurors are now seated for the trial, as the court works to select 12 jurors and two alternates. When they're chosen, jurors are told to report back to the courthouse on March 29, when opening statements are scheduled to begin.

Three other former Minneapolis officers who were at the scene — Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas K. Lane — face charges of aiding and abetting murder. They were fired along with Chauvin one day after Floyd was killed, and they were arrested several days later.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.