Derek Chauvin, the former Minnesota police officer accused of killing George Floyd last year, was charged with third-degree murder several days after his trial began on Monday.
Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill — who is presiding over Chauvin's trial — reinstated the charge Thursday, after a Court of Appeals ruling asked him to reconsider restoring the charge based on its precedent in a separate case.
On Wednesday, the Minnesota Supreme Court declined to hear Chauvin's appeal to block the charge from being reinstated, prompting Cahill to hear arguments about the matter on Thursday morning.
Cahill said he had to reinstate the charge because he was "bound" by the Court of Appeals ruling in a different case on what constitutes third-degree murder.
A conviction of third-degree murder is punishable by up to 25 years in prison.
Chauvin is already facing a second-degree murder charge which carries a maximum prison sentence of 40 years, and a second-degree manslaughter charge for which the penalty is a maximum of 10 years.
The decision is significant because it gives prosecutors an additional avenue for a conviction, Ted Sampsell-Jones, a Mitchell Hamline School of Law professor, told BuzzFeed News before the Court of Appeals ruling.
“For example, if the jurors were divided about second-degree murder, they could settle on third-degree murder as a compromise,” he said.
"The charge of 3rd-degree murder, in addition to manslaughter and felony murder, reflects the gravity of the allegations against Mr. Chauvin," Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said in a statement. "We look forward to presenting all three charges to the jury."
The trial is being viewed as one of the most significant police brutality prosecutions in the country’s history.
Last May, Chauvin was recorded crushing Floyd’s neck with his knee for about nine minutes, as Floyd cried out that he couldn’t breathe. His death sparked monthslong global protests against police violence and the killings of Black men by law enforcement.
Since jury selection began Tuesday, five jurors have already been seated and opening arguments are expected to begin on March 29.
Last October, Cahill dismissed third-degree murder charges against Chauvin and the three other officers accused in Floyd’s murder, stating that the charge does not apply in situations where a defendant’s actions that resulted in a death were directed at a single person.
In February, prosecutors filed a motion asking Cahill to restore the third-degree murder charge against Chauvin in light of a recent decision by the Minnesota Court of Appeals to uphold the third-degree murder conviction of Mohamed Noor, another former Minneapolis cop who killed an unarmed Australian woman last year.
In its opinion in the Noor case, the Court of Appeals said a conviction for third-degree murder may be sustained “even if the death-causing act was directed at a single person.”
However, Cahill denied the state’s motion, saying that the Court of Appeal’s opinion in the Noor case did not set a precedent until the window for asking the state Supreme Court to review the case had ended or the Supreme Court denied to review it.
On Wednesday, the state Supreme Court declined Chauvin's petition to review the case, opening the way for Cahill to reconsider his decision.
In his ruling Thursday, Cahill said even though the Noor and Chauvin cases were "factually different," he had to apply the legal principle that the Court of Appeals established as precedent, which is that third-degree murder applies even if the person's intents and actions are directed at a single person.
Prosecutors have also asked for the third-degree murder charge to be reinstated for the three other officers involved in Floyd's death. Cahill said he would decide on that motion at a later date.