- Former police officer Derek Chauvin is charged with second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter in the death of George Floyd.
- Neither second-degree unintentional murder nor third-degree murder requires specific intent to kill.
- Proving second-degree unintentional murder requires showing that the defendant caused the victim's death and had specific intent to inflict bodily harm short of death.
- Proving third-degree murder requires showing that the accused caused the victim's death, and their acts were eminently dangerous and were performed with a depraved mind.
Opening statements and initial witness testimonies began yesterday in the trial of the former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is charged in the death of George Floyd.
Chauvin was recorded on video kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly 10 minutes on May 25, 2020, while Floyd was pleading "I can't breathe." Three other Minneapolis police officers at the scene, who failed to intervene, will stand trial together in August 2021.
Derek Chauvin is charged with second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter, or what is known as involuntary manslaughter under common law.
As the two types of murder Chauvin is charged with differ from the types of murder recognized by most states in the U.S., they are likely to be unfamiliar to most people following the trial. Further complicating matters is that "murder" commonly is defined in lay terms as an unjustified intentional killing.
Unintentional Murder in the Second Degree
Minnesota Criminal Statutes distinguish between intentional and unintentional second-degree murder. The relevant clause in the Minnesota statute for second-degree murder is the following:
Unintentional Murders: Whoever does [...] the following is guilty of unintentional murder in the second degree and may be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than 40 years:
(2) causes the death of a human being without intent to effect the death of any person, while intentionally inflicting or attempting to inflict bodily harm upon the victim, when the perpetrator is restrained under an order for protection and the victim is a person designated to receive protection under the order. (609.19)
In accordance with this criminal statute, to prove that Derek Chauvin is guilty of second-degree involuntary murder, the prosecution must show that Chauvin caused the death of George Floyd, while intentionally inflicting or attempting to inflict bodily harm on him.
The prosecution must thus prove that (1) Chauvin legally caused the death of Floyd, and (2) Chauvin had specific intent to inflict bodily harm short of death on Floyd.
Clauses (1) and (2) specify causation and malice, respectively—two conditions that must be proven in most murder cases (felony murder being an exception).
Murder in the Third Degree
Minnesota is furthermore one of three states in the U.S. that regards third-degree murder as a category of murder (the other two are Florida and Pennsylvania). According to the Minnesota statute for murder in the third degree, someone is guilty of third-degree murder if they "cause the death of another by perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life" (609.195).
The presiding judge Peter Cahill initially dismissed the charge of third-degree murder on the grounds that the prosecution would need to prove that Derek Chauvin’s actions were “eminently dangerous to other persons.” Yet Chauvin's actions could not have been eminently dangerous to anyone other than George Floyd.
However, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that Judge Cahill should reconsider the prosecution’s motion to reinstate the charge on the grounds of precedent.
In the case of Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, who had been found guilty of third-degree murder in the death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that a conviction for third-degree murder under Minnesota Statutes "may be sustained even if the death-causing act was directed at a single person."
As a consequence of this ruling, Cahill reinstated the charge of third-degree murder against Chauvin.
To prove the charge of murder in the third degree, the prosecution must prove that (1) Chauvin legally caused the death of Floyd (causation), and (2) Chauvin's actions were eminently dangerous to Floyd, and that he performed those actions with a depraved mind, without regard for human life (malice).
In the opening statement, the defense stated that they would show that it is reasonable to doubt that Chauvin caused the death of Floyd on the grounds of his pre-existing medical conditions and the trace amounts of illicit drugs they found in his system during the autopsy.
If the defense is able to prove that it is reasonable to doubt that Chauvin caused the death of George Floyd, this will clear Chauvin of both murder charges and the second-degree manslaughter charge.
In our next post, we will review what the prosecution must show to prove legal causation. In subsequent posts, we will examine the malice clauses of the two types of murder Chauvin is charged with.