Why Was Former Minnesota Cop Charged Only With 3rd Degree Murder?

By - June 3, 2020
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Last Friday, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was placed under arrest and charged with 3rd-degree murder of George Floyd, an African-American, who died when Chavin pinned his neck to the ground with his knee for almost nine minutes. Chauvin also was charged with 2nd-degree manslaughter. (Vox.com)

It is possible the ex-police officer could face federal charges in the future, although this is not certain.

Four days passed from Chauvin’s violent actions until he was arrested. On the other hand, Freddie Gray was fatally injured while in the custody of Baltimore police in April 2015. He passed away a week later. But criminal charges were not filed against the police offers until a month later.

Also, ex-Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, who was convicted later of murdering Justine Damond, committed the crime on July 15, 2017. A grand jury was not convened until February 2018.

Video Appears Damning, But Will Chauvin Be Convicted?

While the video evidence suggests that Chauvin may be easily convicted, experts say state prosecutors will face an uphill battle convicting the ex-cop. Homicide charges against police officers are rare. Approximately 100 police officers have faced murder charges for their on-duty conduct in the last 15 years and only 35 were convicted. None of the officers charged in Freddie Gray’s death were convicted.

George Floyd’s family has expressed disappointment that Chauvin is not facing first degree or second-degree murder charges. The family also is working on getting a second medical opinion after the county medical examiner reported that Floyd’s preexisting conditions contributed to his death, including coronary artery disease and hypertension. He also had intoxicants in his system that may have hastened his death.

It is unsurprising there is disagreement over not filing first-degree murder charges, given how the video looks at first glance. But state prosecutors say that caution in the case is understandable because they know it is difficult to convict police officers.

What Is Third-Degree Murder?

Prosecutors charged third-degree murder probably because they knew it would be almost impossible to prove that Chauvin wanted to murder George Floyd.

In criminal law, the case often hinges upon the state of mind of the defendant. Someone who plans to kill their spouse, and someone who runs over a pedestrian, both committed homicides. But the law treats the person who acted with intent much differently than a person who was simply reckless.

According to Minnesota law, a first or second-degree murder charge requires state prosecutors to prove that the defendant intended to kill their victim. First-degree murder also requires premeditation, while second-degree murder more often is filed in crimes of passion where the perpetrator develops an intent to murder suddenly.

Third-degree murder, on the other hand, applies where a person caused the death of a person by engaging in an act that is ‘eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life.’ (MN.gov)

To convict Chauvin, prosecutors are not required to show that he wanted to kill Floyd, which is difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. Rather, they only need to show that kneeling on someone’s neck for nine minutes, as the person begs for their life, is eminently dangerous and shows a depraved mind.

If Chauvin is convicted, he can get up to 25 years in prison and a fine of $40,000.

What Is Second-Degree Manslaughter?

Chauvin also has been charged with second-degree manslaughter. It is common for the state to charge a defendant with a serious crime and then charge them with a less serious crime if prosecutors cannot get a conviction on the first charge. As with third-degree murder, Minnesota does not mandate that prosecutors show Chauvin intended to murder Floyd to get a conviction for second-degree manslaughter.

According to Minnesota law, someone can 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.” (MN.gov)

What About Floyd’s Medical Condition?

Another issue in the Floyd case is the medical examiner’s report on the cause of death. The medical examiner stated there were no physical findings that indicated Floyd was strangled or suffered traumatic asphyxia. The medical examiner found that his underlying health conditions, as well as possible intoxicants in his system, contributed to his death.

There has been a backlash against the medical examiner’s findings, which seem to blame Floyd in part for his own death. But under the law, Chauvin is still culpable for his death, even if Floyd had underlying health conditions that may have contributed to his demise.


State prosecutors will still need to show beyond a reasonable doubt that Chauvin’s actions on the video caused Floyd’s death. If it is proven that Floyd was having a serious heart issue at the moment that Chauvin pinned him to the ground by his neck, then Chauvin could have a valid defense. But Floyd having an underlying medical problem or using alcohol or drugs will not clear Floyd of wrongdoing.