Judge Won’t Reinstate Third-Degree Murder Charge in George Floyd Case

An opinion by a Minnesota appeals court contradicting the charge’s dismissal is not yet precedential, the judge found.

From left to right: Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao. (Hennepin County Sheriff via AP)

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — A Hennepin County judge declined Thursday to reinstate a third-degree murder charge against fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, finding an appellate court’s ruling allowing for the charge was not binding precedent yet.

Judge Peter Cahill also declined to add aiding and abetting third-degree murder charges to Chauvin’s three co-defendants in a case stemming from the Memorial Day 2020 death of George Floyd.

Cahill had dismissed the third-degree charge against Chauvin in October, citing precedent that required third-degree murder result from an act “eminently dangerous to other people” and not to one person specifically. Floyd, Cahill found, was the only one endangered by Chauvin’s decision to kneel on his neck for several minutes.

Prosecutors moved to reinstate the charge last week after a narrow majority in the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled against that interpretation of the third-degree statute. In that ruling, the appellate court upheld the third-degree conviction of Mohamed Noor, another former Minneapolis police officer. Noor was sentenced to over 12 years in prison in 2019 for the 2017 shooting death of Justine Ruszcyk Damond.

Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank also moved for permission to add aiding and abetting third-degree murder charges against Chauvin’s three former co-workers and co-defendants, Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng.

The trio currently face aiding-and-abetting charges for second-degree murder, but were first arrested and charged alongside the addition of a second-degree murder charge against Chauvin.

Cahill wrote Thursday that the state appeals court’s opinion is far from settled caselaw.

“At best, from the state’s perspective– that is, so long as a petition for review is timely filed in Noor…the Noor decision would obtain precedential status only if and when the Supreme Court denies the petition for review,” the judge wrote.

He also noted that attorney Thomas Plunkett, who represents both Noor and Chauvin’s co-defendant Kueng, had already stated his intent to petition the Minnesota Supreme Court in Noor’s case. 

Should that petition be accepted, Cahill said, the higher court’s decision would likely not come before Chauvin’s scheduled trial date in March.

The judge added that while he could accept the appeals court’s opinion immediately as persuasive, he did not find it so. Cahill noted one judge’s dissent cited eight of the same Minnesota Supreme Court decisions as he had in his initial dismissal, while the majority ignored four of those opinions and sought to distinguish three others only on the ground that the issue at hand was whether a court’s decision not to charge third-degree murder as a lesser-included offense was error.

“In a nutshell, this court agrees with the analysis in the Noor dissent,” Cahill wrote.

Plunkett and Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, declined to comment. A spokesman for the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office said they are reviewing the ruling.

Attorneys for the other two officers did not respond to requests for comment early Thursday afternoon.

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