ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — Minnesota’s Democratic attorney general said Wednesday he has brought an upgraded second-degree murder charge against the fired Minneapolis police officer seen kneeling on George Floyd’s neck before he died, as well as charges of aiding and abetting against three other officers.
Floyd’s death after he was knelt on by former officer Derek Chauvin for nearly nine minutes has sparked nationwide protests and riots against police brutality, from the scene of the incident to the nation’s capital.
Attorney General Keith Ellison announced the addition charges at a press conference Wednesday afternoon.
“We believe we have a duty to charge. The charges did fit the facts in this case, and we have done so,” he said, responding to a question comparing the case to the unsuccessful 1992 prosecution of Los Angeles police officers for the beating of Rodney King.
Ellison also emphasized that the charges were not influenced by widespread civil unrest across the nation.
“I did not allow public pressure to impact our decision-making process. I was prepared to withstand whatever calls came,” he said. “We made these decisions based on the facts that we have gathered since this matter occurred, and made the charges based on the law that we think applies.”
Chauvin was arrested last Friday and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter by Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. Governor Tim Walz, a fellow Democrat, appointed Ellison to replace Freeman as special prosecutor Sunday.
Ellison filed an amended complaint against Chauvin in Hennepin County District Court on Wednesday, adding the second-degree charge to the existing two counts. It also removed a claim from the first complaint that Floyd had resisted officers when they attempted to handcuff him, a major point of contention over the last week.
In Minnesota, a second-degree murder conviction carries a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison. The maximum prison term for third-degree murder is 25 years. The manslaughter charge could give Chauvin 10 years, a fine of up to $20,000, or both, if convicted.
Chauvin, a white man and 18-year veteran of the police department with over 18 prior complaints against him, was shown on video during Floyd’s May 25 arrest kneeling on his neck as Floyd, a black man, said “I can’t breathe” and pleaded for water and his mother before apparently falling unconscious.
Competing autopsies have agreed that Floyd’s death was a homicide but differ on whether he died of asphyxiation or cardiopulmonary arrest, and have not determined whether he died at the scene.
Either way, Floyd’s death sparked a wave of protests and riots across the country, starting in Minneapolis and spreading quickly to Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C., and eventually across the country.
The National Guard has been deployed in at least 23 states to handle protests, including over 7,000 members in Minnesota. Walz, a former guardsman himself, has discussed reducing that presence in the last few days. Both Minneapolis and its neighbor, the state capital of St. Paul, have enforced strict curfews since Friday night in an effort to curtail rioting and violence relating and responding to the protests.
Ellison praised protesters and encouraged them to continue their demonstrations peacefully.
“The pursuit of justice is always good and right, and I want to signal to them that we want them to continue to raise the cause of justice, but do it in a peaceful manner,” he said. “It is their right to express themselves.”
He waxed poetic on that topic.
“There is a role for all who dream of a justice that we haven’t yet experienced. In the final analysis, a protest can shake a tree and make the fruit fall down. But after that fruit is in reach, collecting it and making the jam must follow,” the attorney general said.
Ellison also warned that prosecutions like this can take time to get right, and praised Freeman for being the only prosecutor in the state’s history to successfully convict a police officer of murder.
Chauvin and the three officers who assisted in Floyd’s arrest on suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill were fired the after the arrest. The other offices are Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J.A. Keung. Thao could be seen on video keeping onlookers, including an off-duty paramedic, away from Floyd as they begged Chauvin to stop.
“Don’t do drugs, kids,” he told them. Thao has since left the state.
Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Superintendent Drew Evans announced at the press conference that the BCA was in the process of arresting all three remaining officers, and that one had already been taken into custody. He did not specify who.
Upgrading the charges against Chauvin and charging Thao, Lane and Keung have been major demands of protesters and of Floyd’s family in the past several days, along with broader policing reforms in the city and nationwide.
The announcement was preceded by media coverage citing anonymous sources and eventually confirmed by Minnesota senator and onetime Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar.
An hour before Ellison’s announcement, civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represents Floyd’s family, called it a “bittersweet moment.”
“We are deeply gratified that Attorney General Keith Ellison took decisive action in this case,” Crump said in a statement. “This is a significant step forward on the road to justice, and we are gratified that this important action was brought before George Floyd’s body was laid to rest.”
He added, “These officers knew they could act with impunity, given the Minneapolis Police Department’s widespread and prolonged pattern and practice of violating people’s constitutional rights. Therefore, we also demand permanent transparent police accountability at all levels and at all times.”
The Floyd family also expressed gratitude to the enormous numbers of protesters turning out across the country.
“Our message to them is: Find constructive and positive ways to keep the focus and pressure on,” they said. “Don’t let up on your demand for change.”