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Derek Chauvin trial judge reinstates third-degree murder charge in the death of George Floyd

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MINNEAPOLIS — The judge overseeing the trial of the former Minneapolis police officer charged in the death of George Floyd reinstated a third-degree murder charge in the case Thursday, paving the way for the trial to proceed as scheduled.

The decision was a victory for prosecutors who had sought to restore the charge against Derek Chauvin, the White officer filmed with his knee on Floyd’s neck during a police investigation last May. He is already charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the death of Floyd, a Black man. The addition gives prosecutors another avenue for conviction, but with a shorter prison sentence.

The judge overseeing the trial of a former Minneapolis police officer charged in the death of George Floyd reinstated a third-degree murder charge on March 11. (Video: The Washington Post)

On Wednesday, the Minnesota Supreme Court declined to take up the appeal filed by Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney, seeking to overturn a state Court of Appeals ruling that ordered Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter A. Cahill, who is overseeing the trial, to reconsider a third-degree murder charge in the case. The appellate court then issued a final ruling and sent the issue back to Cahill, who heard arguments on it Thursday morning.

Cahill threw out the charge in the fall and declined to reinstate it last month, arguing the statute requires the fatal action to be “eminently dangerous to others.”

“The evidence presented by prosecutors so far has only shown that Chauvin’s actions were eminently dangerous to Floyd,” Cahill said in an October ruling.

Nelson pointed to Cahill’s past rulings and argued the case cited in the appellate court decision ordering the judge to reconsider the charge against Chauvin was “factually different” from the circumstances around Floyd’s death.

In that case, former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor was convicted of third-degree murder and manslaughter in the 2017 shooting death of a woman who had approached his squad car after making a 911 call about a possible sexual assault behind her home. The court of appeals last month rejected Noor’s effort to have his conviction thrown out — a ruling that established third-degree murder as precedent and led prosecutors in the Chauvin case to reinstate the charge.

“This is not a factually similar case. This is a distinguishable case,” Nelson said. “Factually, there is no instrumentality here other than Mr. Chauvin’s knee, which is not inherently dangerous.”

Nelson argued the judge had “absolute discretion at this charge” and could “be sure that it reflects the gravity of the offense.”

But Cahill disagreed, saying he was “duty bound” to accept the appellate court ruling and its read of the statute. He said that although the Noor and Chauvin cases are different — Noor was convicted of killing someone with a gun and Chauvin is accused of killing someone with his knee — the appellate court had decided that “single acts directed at a single person fall within the gamut” of third-degree murder.

“I am granting the motion because although these cases are factually different … I don’t think there is factual difference that denies the motion to reinstate,” Cahill said. “The court of appeals has said in a precedential opinion specifying the single-person rule applies to third-degree murder. … I feel it would be an abuse of discretion not to grant the motion.”

The judge noted Chauvin has the right to ask for additional time to prepare a defense, but Nelson indicated he was ready to move forward with jury selection.

Prosecutors have repeatedly raised concerns about Cahill’s decision to move forward with jury selection in the case without clarity on the charges, citing concerns the case could later be thrown out on appeal. On Thursday, Matthew Frank, an assistant Minnesota attorney general and lead prosecutor in the case, asked Cahill if he would issue a ruling “essentially ratifying the decisions the court has made” to prevent an appeal over whether he had jurisdiction to move forward.

Nelson, who supported Cahill’s decision to move forward with jury selection, indicated he planned no appeal on jurisdictional matters. “On behalf of my client, I am confident in the decisions the judge has made thus far,” he told the court.

Cahill told prosecutors the issue was moot because it all had been noted in the records of the proceedings.

Another juror was added to the panel — a married Hispanic man who works as a route driver for an unspecified company in the Twin Cities. The man — identified in court as Juror No. 36 — said he had a “very negative” view of Chauvin — writing in a questionnaire mailed to prospective jurors the officer had “no reason to kneel on [Floyd’s] neck for that long.” Chauvin, the juror wrote, was “just being stubborn, not wanting to let go.”

But the juror also expressed a “neutral” view of Floyd, telling the court that if the man would have “complied” with the officers at the scene, “this wouldn’t have happened.” Still, the man insisted he could put his opinions aside and be an impartial juror.

Five other potential jurors were dismissed — including two people of color. Juror No. 37, a Black woman, told the court the viral bystander video of Floyd crying out for his mother while being pinned by Chauvin’s knee had been personally traumatizing and had left her unable to give the former officer the presumption of innocence granted by the law. “I can’t unsee the video,” she said repeatedly, telling the court she had wept at the footage.

Another potential juror who identified as Hispanic likened the footage of Chauvin atop Floyd to imagery from World War II — telling the court he believed the Black man had been “treated worse than an enemy combatant.” Still, the man — identified in court as Juror No. 39 — insisted he could put his strong opinions aside and vote to acquit Chauvin if that’s what the evidence presented in court proved.

“If I couldn’t imagine myself saying not guilty, I wouldn’t be here,” the man said.

But Nelson struck him from the case, a move prosecutors attempted to overturn but was upheld by Cahill.

Six members of the jury have been seated in the trial so far — three White men, a Hispanic man, a multiracial woman and a Black man — in a pace that has been faster than expected. All appear to be in their 20s and 30s. The court seeks to impanel 12 jurors and up to four alternates.

Jury selection continues Friday. Opening arguments in the case are scheduled to begin no earlier than March 29.

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