Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is scheduled to go on trial Monday for the May 25 killing of George Floyd. But that plan was put in question Friday after the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that a lower court has to reconsider whether to add a third-degree murder charge against Chauvin. Floyd died May 25 after Chauvin knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes as Floyd repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe. Opening statements were expected to begin March 29 after a jury selection process.
The court overturned a ruling by Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill that rejected the third-degree charge, and said he must reconsider the prosecution’s request. As far as the appeals court is concerned, it had set precedent on the issue in an unrelated decision last month. “Although parties, attorneys, district court judges, and the public may disagree with this court’s precedential decisions, district courts are bound to follow them,” wrote Court of Appeals Judge Michelle Larkin for the panel of three judges.
What does it mean? No one is quite sure whether it will lead to a delay. And for now the trial has been engulfed in a cloud of uncertainty as experts were quick to express that the situation was highly unusual. “My head is spinning,” Richard Frase, University of Minnesota law professor, told the Star Tribune. “I’ve been a lawyer for 50 years and a Minnesota lawyer for 44 years and I’ve never seen a situation like this.”
Chauvin is already facing a second-degree unintentional murder charge, which is a more serious accusation, as well as a charge for second-degree manslaughter. But prosecutors want to add the third-degree murder charge as a way to assure a path to conviction. “The more charges there are, it kind of suggests to the jury that, ‘Boy, this guy has done all kinds of bad things, he must be guilty of at least one thing,’” Frase told NBC News.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said he agreed with the appeals court. “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,” Ellison said in a statement. Some suggest jurors could see a third-degree charge as a middle ground. But it would surely be controversial considering that third-degree murder was the first charge against Chauvin and that led to an outcry from many who said Chauvin should face a more serious charge.
Chauvin’s lawyer, Eric Nelson, hasn’t commented on what his next step will be but experts said he could ask the Minnesota Supreme Court to review the ruling. That would lead to a delay in the start of the trial. He could also ask for a delay in the start of the trial because Chauvin’s rights could be compromised if he doesn’t have enough time to prepare for the new count. The possible delay to the trial comes as City officials have put up security barriers around government buildings and business owners have started to board up storefronts in anticipation of protests.
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