One of the murder convictions against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is likely to be thrown out after a decision last week by the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Chauvin was found guilty of killing alleged counterfeiter George Floyd in 2020, an incident that spawned massive violent protests in Minneapolis and nationwide. Chauvin’s conviction came against a backdrop of activists saying they planned to riot if Chauvin were acquitted.
According to KMSP-TV, Minnesota has defined third-degree murder as killing a victim without intent while acting in a dangerous way to other people while showing “a depraved mind.”
The Minnesota high court’s ruling said that the element of a depraved mind is not applicable if the person being charged was only focused on one victim, KMSP reported.
The ruling came in the case of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, who was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and third-degree murder in the 2017 shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond.
However, the ruling is likely to set a precedent that could be applied to the Chauvin case.
“It’s crystal clear now that Derek Chauvin cannot be convicted of murder three,” said Joseph Daly, emeritus professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Susan Gaertner, former county attorney in Ramsey County, Minnesota, told the Star Tribune she expects Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney, to try to use the argument that having the charge against him hurt Chauvin’s chances during his trial.
However, she did not give it a very good chance of winning.
“Do I think that argument will be successful?” said Gaertner. “No.”
Daly said Nelson could argue that the charge impacted the jury, but also downplayed its chances for success.
“By having that charge, it so confused the jurors it violated his due process rights,” Daly said an argument could claim. “I think that’s a valid argument. Whether the court will [buy] it, I doubt it, because [jurors] did find him guilty of the higher crime.”
University of St. Thomas law professor Rachel Moran said the ruling clarifies state law, according to KARE-TV.
“The Supreme Court has to address legal issues that apply to a variety of cases, not just one, and sometimes, really their decision wasn’t so much about when should Mr. Noor get out of prison as it was, how should this third-degree murder statute be defined in anybody’s case?” Moran said.
Moran said the law is murky as written.
“It contains outdated language that frankly is not very well written, and the court actually said if you want to focus on rewriting the statute that’s a task for the legislature,” Moran said.
“It’s absolutely true none of these laws were written with police officers specifically in mind, so when the government does decide to prosecute a police officer, they’re trying to figure out which of these ordinarily applicable statutes fit with the officer’s conduct.”
“In a practical way, it does not affect Mr. Chauvin at all,” Moran said. “He will probably get his third-degree murder conviction vacated, just like Mr. Noor did, because his conduct was also recklessly indifferent as to one person: George Floyd.”
Chauvin was sentenced to more than 22 years in prison on the second-degree murder charge. The sentence was based on the second-degree murder charge only, according to the Star Tribune. Unless Chauvin’s attorney can successfully argue that the third-degree charge hurt his chances at trial, it is unlikely his sentence on that second-degree murder charge would be affected even if the third-degree murder conviction were overturned.
Caitlinrose Fisher, one of Noor’s attorneys, said the ruling was important for her client, according to NPR.
“Mohamed Noor did not act with a depraved mind. Mohamed Noor was not indifferent to human life,” Fisher said during oral arguments over the case earlier this year. “With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that Mr. Noor made a tragic split-second mistake. But if there is to be any meaningful difference between murder and manslaughter, that mistake is not sufficient to sustain Mr. Noor’s conviction for third-degree murder.”
She said Noor “really believed that he was saving his partner’s life that night, and instead he tragically caused the loss of an innocent life. Of course that is incredibly challenging, but I think just having reaffirmation that a mistake like that isn’t murder will mean more than words can say.”
UPDATE, Sept. 19, 2021: This story has been updated to make it clear that Chauvin was sentenced to more than 22 years in prison on a second-degree murder charge in connection with the death of George Floyd. By itself, the overturning of his conviction on the charge of third-degree murder, if it happened, would not negate that sentence.