You Don’t Want A First Degree Murder Charge For Derek Chauvin
Protests continue to grip the nation over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed man who died in police custody on Memorial Day. Many people involved in the protesting call Derrick Chauvin, the officer who killed Floyd, to be charged with first degree murder. Murder in the first degree is the harshest penalty in Minnesota, and if convicted, it would carry a life sentence.
But if they want to see Derek Chauvin face a penalty in the justice system, then a first degree murder charge is a mistake.
Murder charges are determined by each state via state statute. While they are all similar in their definition, some states have varying interpretations, punishments, and modifiers to their murder charges. Here is the definition of first degree murder in the state of Minnesota:
Causes the death of a human being with premeditation and with intent to effect the death of the person or of another
There are a bunch of other clarifying lines that include things such as killing someone during the act of rape, a drive by shooting, intentional arson, and others but the thing that needs to be addressed here is the premeditated language. You can read the full definition here.
Those calling for first degree murder are, in fact saying, that Derek Chauvin set out that day with the express and premeditated intent to specifically kill George Floyd.
Why That’s A Bad Option
The way the US justice system works is that charges are brought against a person. These charges are specific, and when they are brought to trial, they cannot be altered or changed over the course of events.
For example, you cannot switch to a lesser murder charge in the middle of a trial unless the charge has already been brought. This feature of the legal system is why you will often see prosecutors bring a long list of related charges to a case; they are hoping one sticks.
The problem here is, it is extremely unlikely that a first degree murder charge will be able to be prosecuted successfully in court. Juries are specifically selected to be neutral and unbiased, and the defense will make sure the people on the bench will have little to no foreknowledge or opinion about George Floyd or Derek Chauvin during trial.
The prosecution would have to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt and get a jury to agree that Derek Chauvin set out that Memorial Day, with the express premeditated intent to go out and specifically kill George Floyd on that day.
Unless they know something that I do not, that charge will never fly in court. Derek Chauvin is almost guaranteed to be acquitted of first degree murder, as the evidence stands now. That would only serve to inflame the raw emotions around this case even further.
The Third Degree Charge
On paper, third degree murder seems a lot less potent than a first degree charge but it still carries a long sentence. However, the third degree murder charge is much more likely to be prosecuted successfully. This is the state definition of third degree murder from the Minnesota legislature:
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 of murder in the third degree and may be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than 25 years.
This charge can stick. This charge can stick much easier than a first degree charge. If paired with manslaughter charges, which it currently is, it is not inconceivable for Chauvin to be convicted and sentenced to 30 or more years in prison.
What’s The Goal?
Unfortunately, if the goal is to see Chauvin get sentenced to life in prison for the death of George Floyd, as the law stands now, it seems unlikely. If the goal is to see him do meaningful time behind bars, a third degree murder charge and a manslaughter charge combination is the best route to do so under the current law. It seems likely that the Minnesota prosecutors know this.
If the goal is to reform how the murder laws are worded in terms of the police, then that needs to be worked out in the state legislature. Derek Chauvin’s callous acts definitely seem to warrant a strong punishment, and this incident could be used to try and pass meaningful legal reform in the Minnesota government.
The death of George Floyd is a heinous act that has shocked the nation, and everyone is in agreement that Derek Chauvin should do time. The question is, what is the best way to get him there? The state prosecutors know the answer to that better than anyone, and I would trust their judgment.