George Floyd

The Minnesota Supreme Court Rejects the Legal Theory Underlying a Murder Charge Against Derek Chauvin

The ruling won't help him much, because he also was convicted of a more serious charge, based on a "particularly weird" form of the felony murder doctrine.


Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, who fatally shot an unarmed 911 caller in 2017, was originally sentenced to more than 12 years in prison. Yesterday a state judge, responding to a recent Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that rejected the most serious charge against Noor, imposed a new sentence that is less than half as long.

That development is relevant to the case against Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis cop who in June was sentenced to more than 22 years in prison for killing George Floyd in May 2020. Chauvin, like Noor, was convicted of third-degree murder, a charge that was clearly inappropriate under the reading of the statute that the Minnesota Supreme Court endorsed last month. But unlike Noor, Chauvin also was convicted of second-degree murder, so the court's ruling won't affect his sentence.

The charging decisions in both cases nevertheless illustrate the challenges posed by high-profile cases against police officers accused of unlawfully using deadly force. Prosecutors face pressure to file charges that trigger penalties commensurate with public outrage, even when those charges are legally questionable.

Noor's case began on a Saturday night in 2017, when Justine Damond called police to report a possible rape in progress, based on noises she had heard from the alley behind her home. Shortly after Noor and his partner, Officer Matthew Harrity, arrived in their squad car, they were "startled by a loud sound" and suddenly saw Damond at the window on the driver's side. Both officers were scared enough to draw their guns. But only Noor fired his, striking Damond once in the stomach. She died 20 minutes later.

One of the charges against Noor, second-degree manslaughter, seemed to clearly fit the facts of the case. It applies to someone who "causes the death of another" through "culpable negligence whereby the person creates an unreasonable risk, and consciously takes chances of causing death or great bodily harm to another."

The other charge against Noor, third-degree "depraved mind" murder, was more problematic. It applies to someone who unintentionally "causes the death of another by perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life." At the time of Noor's trial in 2019, some case law suggested this provision applies only to dangerous conduct, such as firing blindly into a crowd, that is not directed at any particular person.

The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed that interpretation on September 15, when it overturned Noor's murder conviction and ordered his resentencing on the manslaughter charge. "The mental state necessary for depraved-mind murder," the court said, "is a generalized indifference to human life and—based on our precedent—cannot exist when the defendant's conduct is directed with particularity at the person who is killed."

That decision had a big impact on Noor's sentence. "Depraved mind" murder carries a maximum sentence of 25 years. For a defendant with no criminal record, the presumptive penalty under Minnesota's sentencing guidelines is 150 months (12.5 years), which is the sentence that Noor received in 2019. Second-degree manslaughter through culpable negligence, by contrast, carries a maximum penalty of 10 years and a presumptive sentence of four years. At yesterday's resentencing, Hennepin County District Court Judge Kathryn Quaintance gave Noor four years and nine months, reducing his original sentence by 62 percent.

Chauvin, like Noor, clearly targeted a particular person: Floyd, who died after Chauvin pinned him facedown to the pavement with his knee for nine and a half minutes. For that reason, Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter Cahill initially dismissed the "depraved mind" murder charge against Chauvin, but he was overruled by an appeals court. The Minnesota Supreme Court's ruling means Cahill was right after all.

That decision will not help Chauvin much, because he was also convicted of a more serious charge: unintentional second-degree murder, which applies to someone who "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." The maximum penalty for that crime is 40 years, but the presumptive sentence is the same as the presumptive sentence for "depraved mind" murder: 150 months. Based on several "aggravating factors," Cahill chose a sentence of 270 months, or 22.5 years.

While the Minnesota Supreme Court's decision in Noor's case does not cast doubt on the validity of that sentence, felony murder is also a controversial way to characterize Chauvin's conduct. Many jurisdictions allow murder charges against people who participate in felonies that turn deadly, even when the defendant did not attack the victim or intend to kill him. But Minnesota is highly unusual in not requiring an "independent felony," such as burglary or robbery, that is distinct from the actions that caused the victim's death.

In Chauvin's case, the "felony offense" underlying the second-degree murder charge is third-degree assault, which is the same as the conduct that killed Floyd. Because Minnesota does not have an independent felony rule, prosecutors can treat nearly any unintentionally lethal assault as murder rather than manslaughter, which dramatically increases the potential penalty.

After Chauvin was charged with second-degree murder last year, Ted Sampsell-Jones, a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, noted that the felony murder doctrine is itself "highly controversial," because it can result in long prison sentences for tangential participants in crimes that unexpectedly lead to someone's death. He added that Minnesota's felony murder rule is "a particularly weird form of it"—a point he reiterated after Chauvin was convicted in April. "Minnesota law is way out on a limb when it comes to how felony second-degree murder is defined," Sampsell-Jones told USA Today. "We're one of the [few] states that allows assaults to be used as a felony for felony murder."

Despite that anomaly, it seems unlikely that Chauvin could succeed on appeal by challenging Minnesota's expansive take on felony murder. As public defender Greg Egan noted in a 2018 Mitchell Hamline Law Review article, the Minnesota Supreme Court "has a long history of predicating the felony murder doctrine on assault," although he argued that it had repeatedly done so "without significant legal reasoning."

Chauvin, like Noor, also was convicted of second-degree manslaughter, but that charge alone might have led to a sentence similar to the one that Noor received yesterday. Former U.S. Attorney General Bob Barr reportedly worried that the sentence contemplated by a plea deal that Chauvin proposed a few days after Floyd's death—"more than 10 years," according to The New York Times—would be perceived as inadequate. A sentence of less than five years no doubt would have caused even more dismay.

The prospect of public outrage, however, does not relieve prosecutors of the responsibility to file charges that are legally justified by the facts of the case. Nor does a defendant's notoriety nullify longstanding concerns about the felony murder doctrine, which is especially troubling when it gives prosecutors a license to turn manslaughter into murder if they think public opinion demands it.