ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Court of Appeals issued a decision Friday, March 5, that a Hennepin County judge erred when he refused to reinstate a third-degree charge against Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged in the death of George Floyd.
Friday’s decision reverses Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill’s ruling denying a motion made earlier by the prosecution to reinstate the third-degree murder charge. The case will be sent back to Cahill for him to reconsider.
“We reverse the order of the district court and remand for reconsideration of the state’s motion. On remand, the district court has discretion to consider any additional arguments Chauvin might raise in opposition to the state’s motion.”
But the district court’s decision “must be consistent with this opinion,” wrote Minnesota Court of Appeals Presiding Judge Michelle Larkin.
Trial to begin Monday
Chauvin’s trial is scheduled to begin Monday, March 8, with jury selection.
If Chauvin’s attorney Eric Nelson appeals the decision on reinstating the third-degree murder charge to the Minnesota Supreme Court, the trial likely will need to be put on hold. Legal experts also have said attorneys could ask the judge for more time to prepare for trial with the new additional charge, which could also result in a delay.
It is unclear at this time if the trial will be delayed. An order from Cahill regarding the third-degree charge and next steps for the trial could come Friday or over the weekend, said Joseph Daly, emeritus professor of law at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.
Nelson declined to comment on Friday’s decision.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office is prosecuting the case, said in a statement: “We believe the Court of Appeals decided this matter correctly. We believe the charge of 3rd-degree murder, in addition to manslaughter and felony murder, reflects the gravity of the allegations against Mr. Chauvin. Adding this charge is an important step forward in the path toward justice. We look forward to presenting all charges to the jury in Hennepin County.”
Third-degree murder charge
The debate regarding the third-degree charge began when early last month, the state Court of Appeals upheld the third-degree murder conviction of Mohamed Noor, the former Minneapolis police officer who shot and killed Justine Damond in 2017.
The prosecution then filed a motion asking the judge to reinstate the charge against Chauvin, and add on aiding and abetting third-degree murder charges against the three other former Minneapolis police officers charged in connection with Floyd’s death.
Chauvin was originally charged with third-degree murder in addition to second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, but the third-degree murder charge was dismissed in October because Cahill determined there was no evidence that Chauvin’s actions were directed at other people besides Floyd.
But the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled in the Noor case that a conviction for third-degree murder can occur even if the death-causing act was directed at one person. Prosecutors in Chauvin’s case said the decision in the Noor case was now precedential and should be applied.
However, Cahill sided with Nelson’s argument that the Noor decision wasn’t precedential yet because Noor could still appeal the decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court, and denied the motion. The prosecution appealed the denial soon afterward.
Arguments over reinstating charge
The Court of Appeals heard oral arguments this past Monday, March 1, about reinstating the charge.
Special Attorney for the State Neal Katyal, speaking on behalf of the prosecution, argued that the Court of Appeals decision in the Noor case is precedential, despite Noor’s opportunity to petition the ruling to the Minnesota Supreme Court. Katyal also said that a trial judge not following precedential decisions laid out by higher courts would be a “recipe for chaos.”
Nelson faced many questions from the appellate judges about his argument during the hearing and was frequently interrupted. Nelson sided with Cahill’s order, and argued that because Noor petitioned the Minnesota Supreme Court to review his case, the state Court of Appeals decision is not yet binding.
In Friday’s decision, the Court of Appeals ruled the appellate decision upholding the Noor conviction is precedential.
“This court’s precedential opinion in Noor became binding authority on the date it was filed,” Larkin wrote. “The district court therefore erred by concluding that it was not bound by the principles of law set forth in Noor and by denying the state’s motion to reinstate the charge of third-degree murder on that basis.”
Daly said it’s extremely rare for the Court of Appeals to intervene so close to the trial start date.
“I’ve never been involved in a case like this and I’ve never seen a case like this,” Daly said.