Judge in George Floyd case abused discretion in rejecting third-degree murder charges, prosecutors argue

Chao Xiong, Star Tribune
·4 min read

A trial judge failed to follow case law and court rules when he rejected a proposal to add third-degree murder charges against four former Minneapolis police officers charged in George Floyd's death, prosecutors argued in a court filing Monday.

Attorney General Keith Ellison's office filed the memorandum further explaining why the Court of Appeals should intervene and overturn the trial judge's ruling. Prosecutors are asking the Court of Appeals to apply its own interpretation of third-degree murder to the case instead of the interpretation by Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill, who rejected prosecutors' request to add the charges.

"The District Court's decision was erroneous and a clear abuse of discretion …" wrote Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank and Special Attorney for the State Neal Katyal. " … That approach, adopted by the District Court in this case, invites chaos because it would allow courts to eschew precedent based on their own preferred reading of the law.

"It is unfair … because it permits different courts to apply different rules in otherwise similar circumstances. And it threatens to undermine public faith in the judicial process and the rule of law."

Prosecutors want to reinstate a count of third-degree murder against Derek Chauvin and to add aiding and abetting third-degree murder for the first time against J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao.

Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter, and is scheduled to be tried March 8. He had been charged with third-degree murder, but Cahill dismissed that count in October because the charge typically applies when a suspect's actions put multiple people at risk and are not targeted at a single person.

The issue resurfaced after the Court of Appeals issued a 2-1 decision Feb. 1 upholding a third-degree murder conviction against former Minneapolis officer Mohamed Noor in the 2017 fatal shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond. The Court of Appeals wrote that third-degree murder can apply when a suspect's actions apply to a specific person and don't put others at risk.

That prompted prosecutors to file a motion Feb. 4 asking Cahill to reinstate the charge against Chauvin and to add it against the other three defendants, who are charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and manslaughter. Cahill denied the motion, noting that the defendants' actions were directed at one person.

Cahill was wrong to apply his own reading of the statute instead of the Court of Appeals' standard, which is binding on both courts unless it's reversed by the Minnesota Supreme Court, prosecutors wrote.

The judge also misinterpreted case law in rejecting the prosecution's motion, they added.

"The District Court's contrary conclusion — that district courts need not follow this Court's decisions until the Supreme Court denies review — is inconsistent with longstanding practice and foundational … principles," prosecutors wrote. "It would create chaos, enabling district courts to eschew any number of this Court's precedential decisions based on their preferred reading of the law."

According to the memorandum: The district court and Court of Appeals are bound by published opinions from the Court of Appeals according to the Minnesota Rules of Civil Appellate Procedure.

Chauvin's attorney, Eric Nelson, previously argued in a court filing that the Court of Appeals decision is not yet precedent because of a window of time that allows Noor's attorneys to ask the state Supreme Court to review the ruling. Noor's attorney, Thomas Plunkett, has said he will ask for the high court's review.

" … In case after case, this Court has followed its own prior published opinions even where the Minnesota Supreme Court might review — or had actually granted review — of the earlier decision," prosecutors argued. "This Court's consistent practice mirrors the prevailing norm across jurisdictions and accords with bedrock principles …"

Prosecutors said it would critically impact their case if they are unable to add third-degree murder to the cases.

"It is a bedrock principle of judicial review that a lower court must follow a higher court's authoritative interpretation of the law," prosecutors wrote. "In this case, however, the District Court did not adhere to that principle."

Kueng, Lane and Thao are scheduled to be tried in one trial starting Aug. 23.

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708

Twitter: @ChaoStrib