Wednesday's decision by the Minnesota Supreme Court to vacate the third-degree murder conviction against former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor will likely have broader implications for the pending cases against three former officers in George Floyd's death, several lawyers said.
The court ruled that third-degree murder cannot apply when a suspect's actions are directed at a specific person, likely having a domino effect on several pending police prosecutions.
Jurors found Chauvin guilty in April of unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter for killing Floyd in 2020 by kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes.
"It's crystal clear now that Derek Chauvin cannot be [guilty] of murder three," said Joseph Daly, emeritus professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.
Chauvin was sentenced on the second-degree murder count only, listing that as a conviction on his court record while the two lower counts are listed as "no adjudication," or, not convictions. Chauvin is serving 22 ½ years in prison.
Three of Chauvin's former colleagues — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — are charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and manslaughter. The Minnesota Attorney General's Office, which is leading the prosecution, wants to add third-degree murder to their pending cases.
It's unlikely now that third-degree murder will be added to those cases, or to the one against former Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter, who shot Daunte Wright earlier this year in a traffic stop, some lawyers said. Potter is charged with first- and second-degree manslaughter.
John Stiles, a spokesperson for Attorney General Keith Ellison's office, said they are studying the Supreme Court decision.
Former Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner predicted that Chauvin's attorney, Eric Nelson, would appeal his client's conviction and use Wednesday's ruling to argue that having third-degree murder as an option unfairly impacted Chauvin's entire case.
"Do I think that argument will be successful?" said Gaertner, who now works as a defense attorney. "No."
Daly said Nelson could argue that the count confused jurors.
"By having that charge, it so confused the jurors it violated his due process rights," Daly said of a potential argument. "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."
Nelson did not return a message seeking comment.
Chauvin had been initially charged last year with third-degree murder, but Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill dismissed the count, saying it didn't apply because Chauvin was focused solely on Floyd.
But when the Court of Appeals ruled in February to uphold the third-degree murder conviction against Noor, prosecutors asked Cahill to reinstate the third-degree murder charge against Chauvin. Cahill refused, but the Court of Appeals issued another decision compelling him to reinstate the charge.
Noor's attorney, Thomas Plunkett, asked the state Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeals decision, leading to Wednesday's development.
The state Supreme Court's ruling means prosecutors will have to choose between second-degree murder and manslaughter when considering whether to prosecute officers who kill on the job, Daly said, adding that the gap between the two is "pretty big."
Third-degree murder has been interpreted by some as a middle ground, although many critics disagreed when it was filed against Chauvin instead of second-degree murder, which was later added.
"I do think that from an emotional perspective, people can get caught up in the label 'murder' and they want a murder charge and a murder conviction even if the ultimate sentence is not that much different from a manslaughter conviction," Gaertner said.
Third-degree murder is punishable by up to 25 years in prison with state sentencing guidelines calling for between 10 ½ and 15 years for someone with no criminal history. First-degree manslaughter is punishable by up to 15 years; second-degree manslaughter carries a maximum of 10 years with four years being the recommended term for someone with no criminal history.