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The charges against former Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin, explained

The difficulty of proving intent to kill is likely why prosecutors decided on third-degree murder charges.

Ian Millhiser is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he focuses on the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the decline of liberal democracy in the United States. He received a JD from Duke University and is the author of two books on the Supreme Court.

Update: Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison (D) plans to escalate charges against Derek Chauvin to second-degree murder. He’s also charged three other officers involved in George Floyd’s death.

On Friday, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was arrested and charged with third-degree murder of George Floyd, a black man who died after Chauvin pinned his neck with his knee for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Chauvin was also charged with the lesser crime of second-degree manslaughter.

It is possible, though unlikely, that Chauvin could face federal charges in the future.

The four-day turnaround from Chauvin’s act of brutality to his arrest is fairly swift. By comparison, Freddie Gray suffered fatal injuries while in Baltimore police custody on April 12, 2015, and he died a week later. But charges were not filed against the officers who allegedly caused Gray’s spinal cord injuries until May 1.

Similarly, former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, who was eventually convicted of murdering Justine Damond, committed this crime on July 15, 2017. But a grand jury wasn’t convened to investigate the death until the following February.

Despite video evidence of Chauvin’s actions, and despite nationwide protests seeking justice for George Floyd, state prosecutors face an uphill battle in their case against Chauvin.

As Paul Butler, a Georgetown law professor and former prosecutor specializing in cases involving corrupt law enforcement officers, explains, homicide charges against police are very rare. Only about 100 officers have faced such charges for their on-duty conduct since 2005, and only 35 of those were convicted as of 2019. None of the officers charged in Freddie Gray’s death were convicted.

Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office via Getty Images

Speaking through their attorney, Benjamin Crump, Floyd’s family expressed disappointment that Chauvin does not face more serious murder charges. “We expected a first-degree murder charge,” the family said in a statement, “and we want to see the other officers [involved in Floyd’s death] arrested.” (The police department fired four officers because of their involvement with Floyd’s death.)

The family is also seeking a second medical opinion, after the Hennepin County medical examiner concluded that Floyd’s “underlying health conditions including coronary artery disease and hypertensive heart disease” and “potential intoxicants in his system” may have contributed to his death. At a press conference on Friday, Crump suggested that the medical examiner’s report may not be reliable. He claimed that, in past cases involving police violence, “they have these people who work with the city come up with things that are such an illusion.”

The disagreement over prosecutors’ decision not to file first-degree murder charges is understandable, in no small part because of the video showing Chauvin’s treatment of Floyd. But prosecutors’ caution in this case is also understandable, given how difficult it is to convict rogue police officers.

As Butler writes, “an acquittal in a case like this would be a crushing defeat not just for the prosecutors, but for all Americans who hope to see justice done.” And a jury may be more likely to acquit if prosecutors bring more aggressive charges.

Third-degree murder, briefly explained

The decision to charge Chauvin with third-degree murder, and not a more serious crime, likely stems from the fact that it would be difficult for prosecutors to prove that Chauvin intended to kill George Floyd.

In criminal law, a great deal often hinges upon a criminal defendant’s state of mind. Someone who meticulously plots to kill their spouse, and someone whose careless driving causes a fatal accident, have both committed homicides. But the law treats someone who acts with murderous intent far more seriously than someone who is merely negligent or reckless.

Under Minnesota law, charges of first- or second-degree murder typically require prosecutors to prove that a defendant intended to kill their victim. First-degree murder also typically requires “premeditation,” while second-degree murder more often applies to crimes of passion where the perpetrator suddenly develops a murderous intent.

Third-degree murder, by contrast, applies to anyone who “causes the death of another by perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life.”

So, to convict Chauvin of third-degree murder, prosecutors do not need to show that he wanted George Floyd to die — an inherently difficult thing to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. They need to show that kneeling on someone’s neck for nearly nine minutes, as that person begs for their life, is “eminently dangerous” and shows a “depraved mind.”

In Minnesota, the maximum sentence for someone convicted of third-degree murder is 25 years, plus a fine of up to $40,000.

Chauvin is also charged with second-degree manslaughter. It is common for prosecutors to charge a defendant with a serious crime, then also charge them with a less serious allegation in case the prosecutors are unable to obtain a conviction on the first charge. As with third-degree murder, Minnesota does not require prosecutors to show that Chauvin intended to kill Floyd in order to obtain a second-degree manslaughter conviction.

Under state law, someone may be convicted of second-degree manslaughter if their “culpable negligence ... creates an unreasonable risk, and consciously takes chances of causing death or great bodily harm to another.” This charge carries a maximum sentence of up to 10 years, plus a fine of up to $20,000.

As of this writing, Chauvin is in a state prison in Oak Park Heights. His bail was set at $500,000.

Floyd’s medical condition shouldn’t prevent prosecutors from obtaining a conviction

Another source of controversy surrounding the case is the medical examiner’s report on Floyd’s cause of death.

The medical examiner concluded that there were “no physical findings that support a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation.” Rather, the examiner’s preliminary findings suggest that “the combined effects of Mr. Floyd being restrained by the police, his underlying health conditions and any potential intoxicants in his system likely contributed to his death.”

There’s been a significant public backlash against these findings, which seem to blame Floyd, at least in part, for his own death. As a matter of law, however, Chauvin is no less culpable even if Floyd did have an underlying health condition that contributed to his death.

Prosecutors will still need to show that Chauvin’s actions caused Floyd’s death. If it turns out that Floyd was, coincidentally, having a fatal heart attack at the very moment that Chauvin placed his knee on Floyd’s neck, then Chauvin might have a valid defense to the charges of murder and manslaughter. But a victim simply having a medical condition or using recreational drugs or alcohol would not absolve a defendant.

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