Thu. Sep 23rd, 2021

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The Minnesota court of appeals has ordered a judge to reconsider adding third-degree murder to charges against the former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is accused of killing George Floyd last year.

The development could delay Chauvin’s trial, which is due to begin with jury selection on Monday.

Floyd, who was Black, died on 25 May after Chauvin, who is white, kneeled on his neck while he was handcuffed and pleading that he couldn’t breathe.

The killing, which a bystander recorded on video, sparked the biggest civil rights uprising in the US since the 1960s, spilling over at times into rioting but reinvigorating the Black Lives Matter movement and forcing a fresh reckoning on police brutality and broader, systemic racism.

The Minnesota court said the Hennepin county district judge Peter Cahill erred last year when he rejected a prosecution motion to reinstate the third-degree murder charge against Chauvin.

Cahill should have followed the precedent set by the appeals court when it affirmed the third-degree murder conviction of the former Minneapolis officer Mohamed Noor in the 2017 shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, the court said. The Australian woman had called 911 to report witnessing a possible sexual assault. Noor is appealing to the state supreme court.

It was not clear on Saturday whether Friday’s ruling would delay Chauvin’s trial. He is charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter. Chauvin has the option of appealing the ruling to the state supreme court, which would force Cahill to delay the trial, said Ted Sampsell-Jones at the Mitchell Hamline school of law in St Paul.

But if Chauvin doesn’t appeal, the professor added, “then Judge Cahill will almost certainly reinstate the third-degree charge” and jury selection can still begin on Monday, with a further decisions on the extra charge prior to opening arguments due by 29 March.

A reinstated third-degree murder count would increase the odds of a murder conviction. Floyd’s family originally urged a first-degree murder charge and outrage is likely if Chauvin is not convicted.

Legal experts have said reinstating third-degree murder to the case could be a strategic move by the Minnesota attorney general, Keith Ellison, leading the prosecution, to give jurors more chances to convict, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.

The charge could be viewed by jurors as a middle ground. It would also allow the prosecution to present multiple theories based on different elements that must be met to convict on the respective charges. It could also serve as a bargaining chip in plea negotiations, Richard Frase of the Robina Institute for Criminal Law and Criminal Justice told the Minneapolis newspaper.

Cahill could order a hearing this weekend or make an announcement early on Monday.

Donald Trump’s attorney general, Bill Barr, last year rejected a deal for Chauvin to plead guilty to third-degree murder, partly out of concern that it would be seen as too lenient, the New York Times reported last month. The paper added that Chauvin wanted to be spared federal civil rights charges after his murder trial.

Minneapolis and its “twin city”, St Paul, have prepared for the trial by erecting barricades, fencing and barbed wire. The Minnesota national guard has been placed on alert, although the authorities insist peaceful protest will be allowed.

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