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Third-Degree Murder Appropriate for Chauvin
Derek Chauvin, who killed George Floyd earlier this week, has been taken into custody and has been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
My social media feeds immediately erupted with anger that the murder charge is third-degree rather than first-degree. There is a perception that Chauvin is facing a lesser charge than a Black person in his position would receive. Given the 2017 acquittal of Philando Castile's killer, this perception is not baseless.
However, in this case, it is misguided.
I will focus on the murder charge, since that seems to be what is causing the anger. I'm seeing less discussion of the manslaughter charge.
Minnesota's murder statutes are on the State Revisor's website, for first-, second-, and third-degree murder. The Revisor is offline right now, no doubt due to everyone in the country trying to log in at the same time, so here is the Wayback Machine archive for first-, second-, and third-degree murder.
Now let's walk through those links very briefly, without the legalese.
To be charged with first-degree murder in Minnesota (sentence: up to life), it's not enough to have just killed somebody. The perpetrator must also be proved guilty of one of committing one of the following crimes during the killing:
Burglary, robbery, kidnapping, arson, witness-tampering, jailbreak, or certain kinds of drug sales
Killing a law enforcement official
Child abuse, if a "past pattern" of abuse against the victim exists
Domestic abuse, if a "past pattern" of abuse against the victim exists
While you can say many things about Mr. Chauvin, it seems clear that he was not trying rape Mr. Floyd, nor was he committing an arson, and it would be very hard to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that his killing of Mr. Floyd was premeditated. Therefore, a charge of first-degree murder is not supportable.
Second-degree murder (sentence: up to 40 years) requires one of the following:
Specific, clear intention to kill (not simply harm) the victim.
The perpetrator violated a restraining order
The perpetrator was committing a drive-by shooting.
The perpetrator was committing another violent felony not already mentioned.
Again, Mr. Chauvin doesn't seem to be convictable under this standard. You can argue that, at some point in his long and awful knee-choke of Mr. Floyd, he made up his mind that he was going to kill Mr. Floyd, but I think that would be extremely difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt -- and, if you charge him with second-degree murder and can't prove your case, then he walks on the murder charge.
Third-degree murder (sentence: up to 25 years) requires one of the following:
Selling illegal drugs that later kill someone
An unintentional death caused by an act "eminently dangerous for others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life"
Ding ding ding! I think you can probably make and prove a case in court that Chauvin's knee-choke was "eminently dangerous," that it was "without regard for human life," and that it "evinced a depraved mind." We have found the strongest crime under which Mr. Chauvin can be convicted under the laws of Minnesota.
For anyone concerned that third-degree murder is not punitive enough: it carries a sentence of up to 25 years. Derek Chauvin is, I understand, 44 years old, so any of these sentences would be fairly close to a life prison term. As someone who personally considers our prison system fairly brutal and our current sentencing rules considerably too harsh, I'm not inclined to see 25 years as too light a sentence.
Now that the government of Hennepin County is officially charging it as murder, we can refer to Mr. Floyd's murder as "murder" without qualification or complication, at least until the court case is finished.
Many people are calling for the other three officers present at the scene to be charged with murder as well. I don't see how that could happen, and, after walking through these statutes with me, I'm sure you see the same problem. The three officers who stood by and let this happen do not appear to have committed murder under Minnesota state law. But there are many, many other crimes in the lawbook, and one of them may fit the situation. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman seems to think so, as he has stated that he anticipates charges in their case as well.