What Charges Does Derek Chauvin Face?

George Floyd Mural

What Charges Does Derek Chauvin Face?

The trial of the officer accused of killing George Floyd is on the news practically every day. We all know he faces charges, but few of us actually know what they are. We see clips of testimony or quotes of what was said by what witness. But what does it all mean? What stories are the prosecution and defense trying to tell?

George Floyd died while being arrested in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 2020. Police were called to the scene because he allegedly used off a fake $20 at a store. It’s claimed he resisted arrest. Officers handcuffed him behind his back and he was face down on the street. Chauvin kneeled on him, one knee on his neck, for nearly nine and half minutes. The prosecution claims Chauvin’s treatment of Floyd caused his death.

There’s been expert medical testimony that Floyd died because he couldn’t breathe well enough. He was crushed under Chauvin and other officers’ weight, with one knee on his neck and the hard pavement below him. The defense hasn’t put on evidence yet, but so far, they appear to claim that Floyd’s poor overall health and drug use caused his death.

The prosecution has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Chauvin committed the charged crimes. The prosecution must convince the jury there’s no other reasonable explanation given the evidence. As a practical matter, the jury must be virtually certain of the defendant’s guilt to render a guilty verdict.

Criminal Charges Against Chauvin

Chauvin faces three charges:

  • Manslaughter in the Second Degree: “A person who causes the death of another by any of the following means is guilty of manslaughter in the second degree and may be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than ten years or to payment of a fine of not more than $20,000, or both…by the person’s culpable negligence whereby the person creates an unreasonable risk, and consciously takes chances of causing death or great bodily harm to another…”
  • Murder in the Second Degree, Unintentional Murder: “Whoever does either of the following is guilty…and may be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than 40 years…causes the death of a human being, without intent to effect the death of any person, while committing or attempting to commit a felony offense…”
  • Murder in the Third Degree: “Whoever, without intent to effect the death of any person, causes the death of another by perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life, is guilty…and may be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than 25 years.”

Manslaughter in the Second Degree

Minnesota state courts have ruled that to be guilty of this crime, it must be proven the defendant was grossly negligent and recklessness.

  • There was intentional conduct that the person may not have intend to be harmful, but an ordinary and reasonably prudent man would understand it involved a strong probability of injury to others
  • There’s an objective element (gross negligence) and a subjective element (being reckless by consciously disregarding the risk created by the conduct)

The state’s Supreme Court had this to say about what must be proven:

  • The difference between being reckless and negligent is they’re different kinds of negligence, not different degrees. A reckless person is aware of the risk and ignores it. The negligent person isn’t aware of the risk but should have been
  • Minnesota statute defines second-degree manslaughter as culpable negligence. The actor consciously takes a chance of causing another’s death or serious injury. There is intentional conduct, but not necessarily the intent to be harmful, but an ordinary and reasonably prudent man would understand it involves a strong probability of injury to another

If the defense concedes Chauvin was negligent, he may claim he didn’t intend to harm Floyd. Because he didn’t know about Floyd’s drug use and heart disease, he didn’t consciously decide to do something that would cause serious injury or death. The prosecution will argue an ordinary and reasonably prudent person would understand what Floyd suffered involved a strong probability of injury. If Chauvin claims he didn’t think he was injuring Floyd, it may not hold up given the testimony that Floyd told the officers he couldn’t breathe and bystanders telling him Floyd was being injured.

Murder in the Second Degree, Unintentional Murder

The prosecution needs to show Floyd’s death was caused by Chauvin, though the officer didn’t intend to kill him but did so while committing, or trying to commit, a felony (a crime punishable by more than a year in prison). This charge might more commonly come up if someone is struck during a robbery and dies as a result. The assailant may not have intended to kill the victim but did so during the theft.

Under Minnesota statutes, if you assault someone and inflict great bodily harm, you can be sentenced to prison for not more than 20 years or ordered to pay a fine of not more than $30,000, or both. Assault is defined as an act done to cause the fear of immediate bodily harm or death in another or the intentional infliction of, or attempt to inflict, bodily harm upon another.

People, including police officers, can do things that would otherwise be crimes if there’s a legal justification. You can kill someone you reasonably think will try to kill you. A police officer can strike someone to restrain them, if their behavior is a threat to the officer and the person is not complying with a lawful order.

Testimony by the prosecution was that while being pinned and before he died, Floyd lost consciousness. If he ever was a threat to Chauvin, it ended, and there was no legal justification to continue kneeling on him. Continuing to illegally, physically pin Floyd to the road was at least an assault upon him, causing him injuries and his death (as unintentional as it may be). If Chauvin killed Floyd while assaulting him, he’d be guilty of murder in the second degree, unintentional murder.

Murder in the Third Degree

This is the “depraved mind” murder charge that covers acts that kill though that may not have been the actor’s direct intent. Proving intent to do something criminal is normally required before there can be a conviction. In these cases, what’s needs to be shown is an indifference to life. The person does whatever they want, regardless of the high risk someone will be killed. It could be driving on a highway at 100 miles an hour or spraying a crowd with gunfire. The person’s indifference to life is shown by the dangerous act.

The Supreme Court of Minnesota in March laid out what needs to be proven before there can be a conviction:

  • The defendant caused the death of another without the intent to do so
  • By committing an act eminently dangerous to others (it was highly likely to cause death)
  • The nature of the act supports an inference that the defendant was indifferent to the loss of life that this eminently dangerous activity could cause

The court stated what it saw is the difference between a second degree manslaughter charge and the third degree “depraved mind” murder:

  • The manslaughter offense requires the prosecution to prove the defendant causes the death of another due to their culpable negligence, creating an unreasonable risk, consciously taking chances of causing death or great bodily harm to another
  • Third-degree “depraved mind” murder prosecution must show an eminently dangerous act that was highly likely to kill someone which supports an inference the defendant was indifferent to the loss of life that the act could cause

The focus of this charge is on the severity of the action. Is it so extreme it’s likely to cause death, evidencing a depraved mind? I guess the defense will argue Chauvin’s actions weren’t highly likely to cause death, so he lacks the required state of mind to be convicted. The prosecution will cite expert medical testimony otherwise.

How Would You Decide?

At the time I’m writing this, the prosecution hasn’t finished putting on its case so the defense hasn’t started its case. Jury members have a lot on their plate. Not only are they deciding Chauvin’s fate, but the eyes of Minneapolis, Minnesota, the US, and the world are upon them. They must forget that and focus on what’s in front of them.

They can’t just decide something wrong happened so Chauvin is guilty. They need to put the pieces together and if they believe he’s guilty, specifically state what charge.

  • If you’re on the jury, how do you decide an act is negligent but not so dangerous it’s the product of a “depraved mind”?
  • The act creates an unreasonable risk of death but it’s not highly likely to cause death? What’s the difference?
  • If you decide Chauvin committed a felony (assault) that lead to Floyd’s death, could you decide his actions weren’t eminently dangerous?

I wish the jurors the best of luck in handling this case. This is public service in its truest form. No matter what they decide, they will be criticized. It’s a lot easier to write about this case than decide it.

Want More Clients? Take the Next Step and Contact Me

Do you or your clients defend clients against criminal charges? Want help attracting clients facing criminal penalties and a life hampered by a criminal record? If so, I can help you make that happen. Contact me today. You have better things to do than write website and marketing content. I don’t.