The judge overseeing the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with killing George Floyd, has allowed prosecutors to add an additional charge of third-degree murder against Chauvin, who is already facing a more serious count of second-degree murder.
The decision Thursday most likely ended a sequence of legal wrangling and cleared the way for the trial to move forward. Jury selection is well underway, with six of 12 jurors already seated, and opening arguments are scheduled to begin March 29.
The jurors will now have an additional murder charge on which they could convict, even if they decide the evidence does not support second-degree murder.
Third-degree murder was the first charge Chauvin faced last year when he was fired by the Minneapolis Police Department and arrested after Floyd’s death on May 25, and prosecutors had sought to reinstate it.
Within days of Chauvin’s arrest, he agreed to plead guilty to third-degree murder, The New York Times reported last month, but William Barr, then the US attorney general, stepped in to reject the agreement, which had also included an assurance that Chauvin would not face federal civil rights charges.
Judge Peter A. Cahill, who is overseeing the trial, later dismissed that charge, but he upheld the more severe charge of second-degree murder. If convicted of second-degree murder, Chauvin would likely face 11-15 years in prison, though the maximum penalty is up to 40 years. The maximum penalty for the added third-degree murder charge is 25 years in prison. Chauvin also faces a lesser charge of second-degree manslaughter.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals last week ordered Cahill to reconsider whether to add the third-degree murder charge, which has historically been understood to apply to defendants who commit an act that endangers multiple people. But the appeals court broadened the scope of the law in a decision this year and said the charge could be used in cases where only one person was in danger — as it was in the conviction of a Minneapolis police officer, Mohamed Noor, for a fatal shooting.
Cahill said in February that he was not bound by that new interpretation because it could still be reviewed by a higher court, but the appeals court disagreed with his analysis. Cahill granted the prosecutors’ motion to add the charge after brief arguments Thursday morning from Eric J. Nelson, who is Chauvin’s lawyer, and Neal Katyal, a former solicitor general who is helping prosecutors in the case.
Two lawyers for the Floyd family welcomed the decision in a statement.
“The trial is very painful and the family needs closure,” said the lawyers, Ben Crump and Antonio Romanucci. “We’re pleased that all judicial avenues are being explored and that the trial will move forward.”
And Keith Ellison, the Minnesota attorney general whose office is prosecuting the case, said the charge “reflects the gravity of the allegations.”
Chauvin, 44, has been free on bail since October and has been present in court since the trial moved ahead this week, wearing a suit and mask and taking notes on a yellow legal pad as his lawyer and prosecutors interview prospective jurors. So far, the five selected jurors include three white men, one Black man, and a woman of color.