Reconsidering Third-Degree Murder Charges Against Other Ex-Policemen in George Floyd Killing 

On June 30, 2021, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed  Judge Cahill’s denial of the State’s motion to add a third-degree murder aiding and abetting charge against former MPD officers, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao. Their trial is now scheduled for March 2022.[1]

Before looking at this Court of Appeals decision, we will examine a summary of the complicated background for this issue.

Background for Appellate Decision

“Murder in the Third Degree: in the Minnesota Statutes (section 609.195) is defined as “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.”

The original superseding criminal complaint of June 3, 2020, against Derek Chauvin included a third-degree murder charge while not so charging the other three former officers of aiding and abetting that charge in their original complaints of June 3.[2]

On August 28, 2020, Chauvin moved to dismiss the complaint, including the third-degree murder charge. On October 21, 2020, Judge Cahill granted Chauvin’s motion to dismiss the third-degree murder charge while denying the balance of the motion. According to the Judge, such a charge can be sustained only when “the defendant’s actions . . . were not specifically directed at the particular person whose death occurred.” [3]

On February 4, 2021, the State moved for leave to reinstate the third-degree charges against the former officers. The basis for this motion was the Court of Appeals’ February 4th 2-1 decision upholding a third-degree murder charge against Mohammed Noor for the 2017 killing of an Australian woman in south Minneapolis.[4]

On February 11, Judge Cahill denied this motion to add the third-degree murder charges. According to the Judge, the majority opinion in its recent Noor case “is not persuasive in this Court’s view because it departs from the Minnesota Supreme Court’s long adherence to the no-particular person requirement embedded in the depraved mind element [of the crime].” In addition, said Judge Cahill, the dissent in the Noor case was correct.[5]

On February 22, the State appealed that decision to the Court of Appeals. On March 1 the Court of Appeals heard arguments on that appeal, and on March 5 that court reversed Judge Cahill’s decision. As a result, on March 11, Judge Cahill reinstituted the third-degree murder charge against Chauvin. The Judge said he was “duty bound” to accept the appellate court’s ruling and interpretation of the statute.[6]

Court of Appeals June 30th Decision[7]

The Court of Appeals on June 30, 2021, said that its previous decision on the third-degree murder charge in the Chauvin case requires Judge Cahill to reverse his previous denial of the charge of aiding and abetting such a crime by these three former officers and to hear additional arguments from the parties.

Judge Cahill will be duty-bound to follow this decision and order.

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[1] Xiong, Court of Appeals ruling puts third-degree murder back into play in George Floyd killing, StarTribune (July 1, 2021); Williams, Minnesota appeals court clears way for third-degree murder charge against officers in George Floyd death, The Hill (July 1, 2021).

[2] The Criminal Complaint Against Derek Chauvin Over the Death of George Floyd, dwkcommentaries.com (June 12, 2020); The Criminal Complaints Against the Other Three Policemen Involved in George Floyd’s Death, dwkcommentaries.com (June 14, 2020).

[3] Chauvin Moves To Dismiss Criminal Complaint, dwkcommentareis.com (Sept. 9, 2020); Court Sustains Most Charges in George Floyd Criminal Cases, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 23, 2020).

[4] Prosecution and Chauvin Dispute Adding Third-Degree Murder Charges in George Floyd Criminal Case, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 10, 2021); Court Denies Third-Degree Murder Charges for George Floyd Killing, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 12, 2021).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Comment: State Appeals Dismissal of Third-Degree Murder Charges in George Floyd Case, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 23, 2021); Appellate Hearing on Third-Degree Murder Charge Against Derek Chauvin, dwkcommentaries.com (Mar. 1, 2021); Court of Appeals Reverses District Court’s Refusal To Follow Precedent on Third-Degree Murder Charge Against Derek Chauvin, dwkcommentaries.com (Mar. 5, 2021); Derek Chauvin Trial: Week One, dwkcommentaries.com (Mar. 15, 2021)Thomas Lan

[7] See n.1 supra.

 

Developments in State’s Prosecution of Ex-Officers for Aiding and abetting the Killing of George Floyd   

As noted in a prior post, on May 12, attorneys for Tou Thao filed a motion for sanctions for alleged prosecutorial misconduct, and on May 20, the State submitted a blistering opposition to that motion. Also on May 20, the Minnesota Court of Appeals heard arguments in the State’s appeal of the trial court’s denial of its motion to add a charge of aiding and abetting third-degree murder against the other three ex-officers.

Thao’s  Motion [1]

The basis for this motion was the State’s allegedly (a) having Dr. Roger Mitchell, a former Chief Medical Examiner for Washington, D.C., pressure Dr. Andrew Baker, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner, to change his preliminary findings of “no physical findings [supporting] a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation” to the final findings of “neck compression;” and (b) after Chauvin’s chief medical expert (Dr. Fowler) testified that in his opinion the cause of death was undetermined, Dr. Mitchell wrote to Maryland officials to investigate Dr. Fowler’s qualifications and such an investigation was commenced by the Maryland Attorney General.

On that basis the motion requested an order (a) dismissing the criminal charges against Thao; (b) barring seven attorneys (Including Attorney General Ellison and Neal Katyal) from participating in any trial against Thao; (c) asserting complaints about these attorneys to their professional responsibility authorities; and (d) requiring the State to report Dr. Mitchell to the appropriate medical boards.

On the same day of the motion, the State submitted a short letter to the Court from Minnesota Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank saying that this motion asserted, “Bizarre allegations . . . [that] are false and wrong.”

A more detailed and fierce response from the State was filed on May 20. It asserted that this “motion is another bad-faith attempt by Defendant Thao to debase the State, disqualify members of the prosecution team, and divert attention from his role in the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. . . .These preposterous accusations are simply false, and . . .Thao does not even offer a shred of evidence to support this baseless conspiracy theory. If anything, the very facts . . . Thao offers [the sworn testimony of Dr. Baker]disprove the accusations he makes.”

“The State also cannot, and did not, control or influence the response to Dr. Fowler’s public testimony from the medical community at large . . . . [Over 400] medical professionals found Dr. Fowler’s testimony to be so contrary to accepted medical standards that they publicly expressed concern about the credibility of Dr. Fowler’s work. . . .[This] is evidence against, not for, the wild accusations of defense counsel.”

Thao’s attorney “has launched a frivolous motion practice campaign to unfairly prejudice the prosecution in the public domain, replete with gratuitous and unfounded personal attacks on the prosecution. To make false accusations of coercion against the State n an attempt to tarnish professional reputation, taint the jury pool, and advance Defendant’s interest in the public eye is beyond the pale.”

Therefore, argued the State, “the court should summarily deny ]this motion} . . .and remind defense counsel of his obligation to refrain from frivolous motion practice.”

Appellate Argument Over Aiding and Abetting Third-Degree Murder [2]

On May 20, the Minnesota Court of Appeals heard arguments in a pending appeal by the State over whether or not the three co-defendants (Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao) could be charged with aiding and abetting third-degree murder of George Floyd.

Neal Katyal for the State argued that this appellate court already had decided that a charge of third-degree murder was viable against Derek Chauvin, for which he was convicted in April, and that appellate decision “should settle the [issue for the other three defendants].

For the three co-defendants attorney Deborah Ellis argued that it was legally impossible for them to be charged with aiding and abetting third-degree murder because that is an unintentional act and relies on a defendant’s reckless state of mine, but aiding and abetting must be intentional. This, she argued, required the principal actor and the accomplice to be of the same mindset.

One of the three appellate judges, Judge Renee Worke, said this was a “novel” argument while Attorney Katyal said this argument was just wrong. A defendant and aids a crime of recklessness if he intentionally assist in the reckless act, knowing it is reckless. Moreover, the State could just charge the three co-defendants as principal actors.

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[1] See Developments in State Criminal Cases for George Floyd Killing, dwkcommentaries.com (May 13, 2021); State’s Response to Defendant Thao’s Motion for Sanctions Regarding Alleged Witness Coercion, State v. Thao, Hennepin County District Court, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12949 (May 20, 2021); Olson, Prosecutors deny defense claim that medical examiner’s opinion in George Floyd’s death was coerced, StarTribune (May 20, 2021).

[2] Forlit (AP), Appeals court hears case of 3 ex-cops charged in Floyd death, StarTribune (May 20, 2021).

Additional Developments in George Floyd Criminal Cases

Developments in the four criminal cases over the killing of George Floyd through September 18, have been discussed or cited in a previous post.[1] Here are the further developments in the cases over the last two weeks.

Change Venue To Protect Defendants’ Safety [2]

The most significant development has been J. Alexander Kueng’s attorney’s October 1st argument that the case should be moved from Hennepin County to another county in order to protect the defendants’ safety. The following was the asserted factual basis for this supplemental argument:

  • For the September 11th hearing, “no recognizable plan was in place in advance of the hearing to assure the safe and orderly entry of CoDefendants or Co-Counsel into the courthouse.”
  • “ Chauvin, who is in custody, was subjected to a degree of humiliation by being paraded in public dressed in jail cloths and body armor.”
  • “Attorneys and Defendants were harassed upon arrival and departure from the courthouse.”
  • Attorneys “ Paule and Mr. Thao were followed for several blocks by jeering protestors when departing. . . .[Attorneys] Gray, Plunkett, and their respective clients were harassed. Gray and Lane were physically assaulted.”
  • “A privately owned vehicle sustained nearly $2,000.00 worth of damage from the violent rioters.”
  • “A rioter also used video from the event to dox [slang: publishing the private personal information of another person] one of the parties.”
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doxing
  • “Before leaving the courthouse, counsel conferred with court security to get advice on how they should safely leave the area. Court security suggested they wait until after The Floyd family and their attorney had addressed the crowd. This advice did not make sense, and, if followed, caused greater concern for attorney and client safety. Counsel rightfully believed that these speeches would incite the crowd making their departure far more risky and tempt rioters to storm the courthouse.”

Under Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure, the defense attorney argued, “a change of venue may be granted in the interests of justice,” and under cited Minnesota Supreme Court cases, “Where there is reason to believe that it will be impossible to obtain a fair and impartial trial in the county selected because of local prejudices, feelings, and opinions, the ends of justice require that a change of venue be granted.”

If the trial were held in Hennepin County, said the defense attorney, “the jury will be influenced by the screaming and yelling of the crowds that could be heard from the first floor during the motions hearing. . . . Witnesses will be intimidated as they have to walk the gauntlet before they testify. Defense witnesses will be reluctant to testify if providing exculpatory evidence will subject them to rioting, assaults and dox attacks.”

“The defendants have to reasonably question whether the chants and crowds will impact the decisions of the judge and jury in their case as the people that will decide their case pass through the rioters during weeks of trial.”

“The defendants and their lawyers cannot safely enter and exit the courthouse. Parties were physically assaulted after a simple motions hearing. During trial, tensions are going to be even higher. The lawyers will be carrying notebooks, computers, law books and other materials to help defend their clients, which will make it more difficult for them to avoid the angry crowds.”

“As demonstrated by the September 11th hearing, the Court simply cannot control the rioters and protesters who have taken to the streets of Minneapolis. This Court must grant a change of venue to a county where the defendants can obtain a fair trial free from the riots and crowds that will occur if he is tried in Hennepin County.”

Presumably the other three defendants will support this argument and the State will attempt to counter it, presumably be identifying security measures that will be imposed.

Prior Acts of Chauvin, Kueng and Thao [3]

Another significant development was the State’s notice of intent to offer evidence of eight other instances of Chauvin’s alleged use of force to prove his intent, knowledge;  common scheme or plan and modus operandi; one instance of Kueng’s use of force to prove knowledge and intent; and nine instance of Thao’s conduct to prove expediency, dishonesty and refusal to respond to training.

The State also said it intends prior to trial to file a separate memorandum in support of the admission of this evidence and that it “may offer evidence of other acts, instances of specific conduct, and prior convictions” of the defendants.”

The defendants have not yet responded to this notice, except in their additional arguments against joinder of the cases for trial, as discussed below.

Additional Arguments Against Joinder of Cases for Trial [4]

As previously discussed, the court at the September 11 hearing heard arguments for and against the State’s motion to join all four cases for one trial. Now two of the defendants have submitted additional opposing briefs.

Chauvin’s attorney argued that the State’s intent to offer evidence of eight prior acts of Chauvin and of prior acts of two of the other defendants (Kueng and Thao) demonstrates that “a majority of the evidence will not be admissible against all defendants” and, therefore, contradicting the State’s argument for joinder. In addition, Chauvin would be prejudiced by the other defendants attempts to blame Chauvin.

Kueng’s attorney argues that the State’s intent to use evidence of prior bad acts by Chauvin and Thao would prejudice Kueng because such evidence could be used against Kueng and he could use the evidence in a manner in which the State would be prohibited.

Thomas Lane Case  [5]

Lane’s attorney noticed his intent to offer evidence of Lane’s good character in a January 2020 encounter with a homeless Black individual in a wheelchair.

Alexander Kueng Case [6]

In addition to his previously mentioned additional argument for change of venue, Kueng has filed an appeal to the Minnesota Court of Appeals from the district court’s denial of his request for public funding of fees for services other than counsel.

 Press Articles about Defendants [7]

There also have been press articles about the defendants.

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[1] See Developments in George Floyd Criminal Cases, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 19, 2020).

[2] Supplemental Memorandum Notice of Motion and Motion To Change Venue, State v. Kueng, Court File No.: 27-CR-20-12933 (Hennepin County Dist. Ct. Oct. 1, 2020); Olson, Crowd swarms former Minneapolis police officers with shouts of ‘Murderer!’, StarTribune (Sept. 11, 2020); Forliti, Lawyer: Unruly crowd warrants venue change in Floyd case, StarTribune (Oct. 1, 2020); Xiong, Protesters assaulted former officer charged in George Floyd’s killing and defense attorney, court filing alleges, StarTribune (Oct. 2, 2020). 

[3] State’s Amended Notice of Intent To Offer Other Evidence, State v. Chauvin, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12646 (Hennepin County Dist. Ct. Sept. 25, 2020).

[4] Defendant’s [Kueng’s] Memorandum—Effect of the State’s Spreigl Notice of Joinder, State v. Kueng, Court File No.: 27-CR-20-12953 (Hennepin County District Court Sept.25, 2020); [Chauvin’s} Memorandum of Law Regarding the Effect of the State’s Spreigl Notice of Its Joinder Motion, State v. Chauvin, Court File No.: 27-CR-20-12646 (Hennepin County District Court Sept.25, 2020).

[5] Defendant Thomas Lane Notice of Intent To Offer Character Evidence, State v.Lane, Court File No.: 27-CR-20-12951 (Hennepin County District Court Sept. 30, 2020).

[6] Appellate Notice of Case Filing, State v. Kueng, Court File No.: 27-CR-20-12953 (Hennepin County District Court Sept. 22, 2020 27-CR-20-12953 (Hennepin County District Court Sept. 22, 2020); Appellate Notice of Court Filing, State V. Kueng, File #27-CR-20-12953 (Minn. Ct. App. Sept. 22, 2020); Request for Trial Court Record-Appellate Court, State v. Kueng, File A20-1225 (Minn. Ct. App. (Sept. 24, 2020); Appellate Exhibit List, State v. Kueg, Court File No.: 27-CR-20-12953 (Hennepin County District Court Sept.25, 2020).

[7] Chanen, Trouble signs showed up early in the career of fired Minneapolis police officer Tou Thau. StarTribune (Sept. 26, 2020); Xiong, [Kueng’s] Former officer’s failure to stop the deadly restraint of George Floyd leaves friends perplexed, StarTribune, StarTribune (Sept. 13, 2020).