Appeals court says judge in Chauvin case ‘erred,’ must reconsider additional murder charge

It’s unclear if the ruling will affect the timing of the trial, which begins Monday

Workers install security fencing outside a building.
Workers install security fencing at the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis on Wednesday. Security measures are being increased before jury selection begins in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in George Floyd's death on Monday.
Kerem Yucel | AFP via Getty Images

Updated: 11:50 a.m.

Three days before the trial of Derek Chauvin is set to start with jury selection, the Minnesota Court of Appeals says a district court needs to reconsider the addition of a third-degree murder charge against the former Minneapolis officer. 

Chauvin, who knelt on the neck of George Floyd for about nine minutes, is already charged with second-degree unintentional murder and second-degree manslaughter. He was also previously charged by prosecutors with third-degree murder, but Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill dropped the charge against Chauvin because he said it didn’t apply. 

It’s unclear if Friday’s ruling will affect the timing of the trial, which is set to begin Monday with jury selection. 

“Anything could happen at any time at this point,” a court spokesperson said Friday. “We’ll just have to see how the day transpires.”

It’s possible that Cahill would issue an order over the weekend.

Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney, declined to comment for this story.

Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office is leading the prosecution, said in a statement that "the Court of Appeals decided this matter correctly."

"We believe the charge of 3rd-degree murder, in addition to manslaughter and felony murder, reflects the gravity of the allegations against Mr. Chauvin. Adding this charge is an important step forward in the path toward justice. We look forward to presenting all charges to the jury in Hennepin County," his statement continued.

The higher court said in its opinion that Cahill was mistaken by thinking an appellate ruling last month in a separate police killing — involving former Minneapolis officer Mohamed Noor — was not a legal precedent.

“This court’s precedential opinion in Noor became binding authority on the date it was filed,” Friday’s ruling said. “The district court therefore erred by concluding that it was not bound by the principles of law set forth in Noor and by denying the state’s motion to reinstate the charge of third-degree murder on that basis.

“We reverse the order of the district court and remand for reconsideration of the state’s motion. On remand, the district court has discretion to consider any additional arguments Chauvin might raise in opposition to the state’s motion. But the district court’s decision must be consistent with this opinion.”

Third-degree murder in Minnesota, or “depraved mind” murder, is typically applied to acts that endanger more than one person, such as shooting into a crowd. 

Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, who was convicted of third-degree murder in 2019 for the killing of Justine Ruszczyk, had challenged his conviction at the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The appeals court’s majority ruled that Noor’s conviction was appropriate, and that the statute may be “sustained even if the death-causing act was directed at a single person.” 

Prosecutors asked Cahill to reinstate the charge after the appeals court decision, but he declined, saying in his decision that he disagreed with the appeals court. 

Prosecutors argued before a panel of judges earlier this week that Cahill should reinstate the third-degree murder charge against Chauvin based on its decision last month. 

Chauvin’s attorney argued that the appellate court’s decision does not create a legal precedent because the case has not gone up to the state Supreme Court. That process takes time — the Supreme Court will hear the case in June. And if Noor’s conviction were to be overturned by the Minnesota Supreme Court, Nelson said Chauvin wouldn’t get the opportunity to challenge a third-degree murder charge before his trial starts.

A man with a navy blue mask stands in a lobby.
Attorney Eric Nelson, representing Derek Chauvin, leaves the Hennepin County Courthouse after a hearing in Minneapolis, Minn., on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020.
Evan Frost | MPR News

“My client would have the right to appeal that decision if Noor were to be overturned,” Nelson said during the appeals court hearing, “but he would have to do it from the confines of a prison cell, and that is violative of due process.”

Prosecutors argued that a trial court judge shouldn’t have the ultimate say in how the charges are presented before a jury. Prosecutor Neal Katyal told Court of Appeals judges that it is up to them to decide whether their earlier ruling should apply in this case as well. 

“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,” he said. 

The other three former officers charged in Floyd’s killing are scheduled to go on trial in August.

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