A judge in the U.S. state of Minnesota allowed prosecutors Thursday to add third-degree murder to the charges former police officer Derek Chauvin is facing in the death of George Floyd.
Judge Peter Cahill granted a request from prosecutors to add the charge after the Minnesota Court of Appeals, in an unrelated case, established new grounds for the charge to be reconsidered. The state’s Supreme Court subsequently rejected efforts by Chauvin’s defense team to block it.
The 44-year-old Chauvin was already facing second-degree murder and manslaughter charges.
Some legal experts say the new charge aids prosecutors by providing jurors with an additional option to convict Chauvin.
Cahill, who twice rejected the third-degree charge before the appellate ruling, issued the decision as the jury selection process in Chauvin’s trial entered its third day.
Five jurors had been seated after the second day of screening by attorneys and Judge Cahill, who had reserved at least three weeks to complete the selection process.
Chauvin, who is white, is accused of killing George Floyd, an African American man, in an encounter that triggered months of protests throughout the world against police abuse of minorities.
The 46-year-old Floyd died May 25, 2020 in police custody after Chauvin pinned a knee on his neck for about nine minutes as Floyd pleaded that he could not breathe.
Judge Cahill started the jury selection even though it had remained unclear until Thursday whether Chauvin would also face a third-degree murder charge. Prosecutors were asking the Minnesota Court of Appeals to put the trial on hold until the issue of adding the extra count was resolved.
It could take as long as three weeks to pick 12 jurors and up to four alternates, with opening arguments in the case not expected to start before March 29. With coronavirus restrictions in place, the jurors will be seated two meters from each other in the courtroom.
Prospective jurors were mailed a 16-page questionnaire about the case, asking them about their views on policing, the criminal justice system and advocacy movements such as Black Lives Matter. The would-be jurors were asked to disclose everything they know about the widely publicized case, Floyd’s death, his nationally televised funeral and protests against police in the weeks that followed.
The questionnaire also asked prospective jurors whether they participated in the protests, and if they carried signs, what their messages said.
During the jury selection process, prosecutors and defense attorney Eric Nelson are closely questioning the jurors about their views of the case.
Cahill, a Hennepin County District Court judge, has sharply limited the number of people allowed in the courtroom for the trial, but because of the wide interest in the case, he has given Court TV the right to televise it, the first time a criminal trial in Minnesota will be broadcast in its entirety.
Dozens of witnesses are expected to testify in the case, although it is not clear whether Chauvin, a 19-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department before he was fired after the May 25 incident, will take the witness stand in his defense.
The trial of three other dismissed Minneapolis police officers who were on the scene as Chauvin pinned down Floyd is not scheduled until August and could be canceled, and charges dropped, if Chauvin is acquitted.
Testimony in Chauvin’s case could last through most of April, with the jury not starting to decide the case until late in the month or early May.
Prosecutors will attempt to show that Chauvin used unreasonable restraint in holding down Floyd, who was suspected by a storekeeper of trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill, and that Chauvin’s actions contributed directly to Floyd’s death. If convicted, Chauvin could face years in prison. The other three former officers in the case are facing charges of aiding and abetting manslaughter and murder.
Defense attorney Nelson has said that Chauvin is not guilty because he acted in self-defense in restraining Floyd and used reasonable and authorized force as a police officer.
In addition, Nelson is set to argue that Floyd died from drugs found in his body and other underlying health problems, including heart disease.
Hennepin County Medical Examiner Andrew Baker formally declared Floyd’s death a homicide, saying that neck compression was a key factor. But the medical examiner also listed heart disease, fentanyl intoxication, recent methamphetamine use and Floyd’s bout with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, as other “significant conditions.”