Third-Degree Murder Charge Dropped in George Floyd Case

In this courtroom sketch, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, center, sits beside his defense attorney during a hearing in Minneapolis last month. (Cedric Hohnstadt via AP)

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — A Minnesota judge dismissed a third-degree murder charge against the fired police officer accused of killing George Floyd, but found prosecutors had probable cause for all other charges against him and three other officers, including second-degree murder.

Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill’s order released Thursday morning drops a third-degree murder charge brought against former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin. The order left intact second-degree murder and manslaughter counts against him and aiding-and-abetting charges against the three other officers involved in Floyd’s arrest. Floyd’s May 25 arrest, during which Chauvin knelt on his neck for over nine minutes, and subsequent death led to unprecedented civil unrest in Minneapolis which quickly spread across the globe.

Shortly after news broke of the order, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey requested, and Democratic Governor Tim Walz ordered, the activation of the Minnesota National Guard to provide “public safety services and security assistance” if needed. Frey spokesman Mychal Vlaktovich told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that the request was made “out of an abundance of caution and for the sake of preparedness.”

Protests have ebbed and flowed in Minneapolis since the arrest of Chauvin and fellow officers Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane in June, but as of early Thursday afternoon no major protests were ongoing in the already snow-covered city. Protests flared earlier this month after Chauvin was released from custody on bail, with police arresting 51 demonstrators.

All four officers are now expected to go to trial starting in March. A motion for joinder by the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, which is prosecuting the case, is pending. Counsel for all four officers have opposed it. If that motion is not granted, Chauvin’s trial is scheduled to begin March 8, with trials for Thao, Lane and Kueng following.

Cahill also has yet to rule on motions for a change of venue from all four officers, whose attorneys contend that extensive pretrial publicity will make it impossible to empanel an unbiased jury in Hennepin County and that protests outside hearings have made keeping proceedings in Minneapolis unsafe for them and their clients. The state has opposed those requests.  

Attorney General Keith Ellison celebrated the judge’s refusal to dismiss most of the charges in a brief statement issued early on Thursday.

“This is an important, positive step forward in the path toward justice for George Floyd, his family, our community, and Minnesota. We look forward to presenting the prosecution’s case to a jury in Hennepin County,” Ellison said.

Defenses laid out by the officers arguing that Floyd died of a fentanyl overdose, Cahill wrote, were not sufficiently supported to exonerate them.

“Chauvin contends only that Floyd’s alleged drug use was ‘the most likely cause’ of death, not that it was the sole cause of his death. To qualify as a superseding cause, however, the independent action must actually intervene to break the causal chain, must occur ‘after the defendant’s acts,’ and must be the ‘sole cause’ of death,” the judge wrote. “Chauvin’s speculative allegations therefore are legally insufficient.”

He added that Floyd’s behavior on video, in which he appeared panicked and hyperactive and spoke coherently until minutes before he stopped breathing, was not consistent with a fentanyl overdose.

“Notwithstanding Chauvin’s contention that Floyd was suffering from a fentanyl overdose Floyd did not, during his interactions with the defendants display some of the ‘common sign[s] of a fentanyl overdose,’ such as falling asleep, snoring, or nodding off,” the ruling states.  

Cahill also cast doubt on Chauvin’s assertion that he had used department-recommended practices to restrain Floyd, pointing out that the “maximum restraint technique” detailed in Minneapolis Police Department training handbooks requires officers to move detainees to a recovery position on their side as soon as possible, use restraints known as “hobbles,” make restraint easier and less dangerous, and call a supervisor to the scene to complete a force review.

The judge also wrote that the state had adequately shown that Lane, Kueng and Thao knew the risks of Chauvin’s conduct and that Chauvin had “consciously disregarded the risk of death” it created, and did not need to show that they knew exactly what Chauvin was thinking in the moment.

Checking Floyd’s pulse and relaxing their own holds, he wrote, did not exonerate Kueng or Lane since they “took no affirmative, assertive actions to persuade Chauvin to terminate the neck restraint, to roll Floyd onto his side in what they knew from their training was the recovery position, to begin administering CPR to Floyd or at the very minimum to walk away and stop associating themselves with Chauvin’s conduct.”

Cahill laid out his reasons for dismissing the third-degree murder charge in the order, finding that in order for a defendant’s actions to be “eminently dangerous to other persons,” they may not have been specifically directed at the person who died. Because of that requirement, he wrote, “this is not an appropriate case for a third-degree murder charge. The evidence presented by the state does not indicate that Chauvin’s actions were eminently dangerous to anyone other than Floyd.”

The judge stayed his order for five days to allow the state to consider an appeal, and Ellison left that option open in his statement.

“The court’s decision to dismiss just one of the lesser charges against just one of the defendants — while leaving intact all the charges against the other three defendants — is based on how appellate courts have interpreted the statute in question,” he said. “We are considering our options in light of the court’s strong order on the remaining charges.”

Attorney Thomas Plunkett, representing Kueng, issued a brief statement on the ruling. “The court’s order reflects considerable scholarship, integrity and work ethic – which is appreciated. I am still reviewing the order and do not plan on commenting further in the future,” he said.

Attorneys representing Lane and Thao did not respond to requests for comment. Attorney Eric Nelson, representing Chauvin, declined to comment.

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