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Judge dismisses third-degree murder charge against officer in George Floyd’s death; upholds more serious charge

Derek Chauvin faces a charge of second-degree unintentional murder in George Floyd’s death. (Minnesota Department of Corrections/Reuters)
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Minneapolis — A Minnesota judge dismissed a third-degree murder charge against the former officer who held his knee on George Floyd's neck, but the judge upheld a more serious murder charge in a ruling made public Thursday.

Hennepin County District Judge Peter A. Cahill upheld second-degree unintentional murder and second-degree manslaughter charges against Derek Chauvin, ruling that prosecutors had met standards for probable case in bringing the case before a jury. He also denied requests to dismiss charges by the three other former Minneapolis police officers who were involved in the scene before Floyd’s death: J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao. Those former officers are charged with aiding and abetting.

Floyd died May 25 while handcuffed and restrained face down on a South Minneapolis street as police investigated a 911 call about a counterfeit $20 bill that had been passed at a local convenience store. During a struggle, Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. Floyd repeatedly complained of struggling to breathe until he stopped moving and Kueng could not detect a heartbeat.

The four involved officers have offered varying defenses. Through their attorneys, Kueng and Lane, who were rookies on the job full time for less than a week, have sought to shift blame to Chauvin, a 19-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department who was the senior officer at the scene. Chauvin has pointed the finger at Kueng and Lane, suggesting they were in control of the scene and did not do enough to de-escalate the situation with Floyd.

Thao, meanwhile, has argued he was acting as a “human traffic cone,” trying to control a growing crowd at the scene, and was unaware of what was happening behind him.

Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney, has argued in an effort to dismiss the charges that Floyd died of a lethal overdose of fentanyl combined with preexisting health issues including heart disease.

Cahill largely rejected Chauvin’s motion to dismiss, saying the prosecutor’s evidence offers probable cause “that Chauvin’s conduct was a substantial factor in Floyd’s death.” The county medical examiner’s autopsy of Floyd concluded that he died of homicide, the judge further noted, though he said Chauvin can make the overdose argument at trial.

Cahill called the third-degree murder charge against Chauvin“not appropriate” for the case, because Minnesota case law “requires the act causing the ‘death of another’ must be eminently dangerous ‘to others.’ ”

“The evidence presented by the state does not indicate that Chauvin’s actions were eminently dangerous to anyone other than Floyd,” Cahill wrote

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office is handling the prosecution, said the judge’s decision was based on how “appellate courts have interpreted the statute in question.

“We are considering our options in light of the court’s strong decisions on the remaining charges,” Ellison said in a statement.

It was the first ruling in a series of major decisions expected in the case. Cahill is also considering whether the men will be tried together, as prosecutors have requested, or separately, as the former officers want. Defense attorneys have also requested to move the trial out of Hennepin County, questioning whether it is possible to seat an impartial jury in Minneapolis and citing security concerns in a city that was rocked by days of civil unrest after Floyd’s death and remains deeply on edge.

On Thursday, just as Cahill’s latest ruling was made public, county employees were seen reinstalling plywood on windows at the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis, the site of frequent protests since Floyd’s death, which sparked a national reckoning on issues of race, social justice and policing.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D), acting on a request from Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, announced he was activating 100 Minnesota National Guard troops and deploying state patrol officers to Minneapolis to guard against any potential unrest in reaction to developments in the case. “I want to remind Minnesotans that today’s ruling marks a positive step in the path toward justice for George Floyd,” Walz said in a statement.

Other state and local officials issued statements and social media messages also casting the judge’s decision in a hopeful light — including Ellison, who described Cahill’s ruling as a “positive step forward in the path toward justice” for Floyd, his family and the community.

Ben Crump, a lawyer for the Floyd family who is overseeing a federal civil wrongful death suit against the city of Minneapolis and the former officers, released a statement with co-counsel Antonio Romanucci on Thursday saying “We are gratified” that most of the charges against Chauvin will move forward. The statement specifically noted “the more serious second-degree murder charge for which we expect a conviction, based on the clear and evident use of excessive force that we all saw on video.”