A judge has dropped a third-degree murder charge against Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer accused of killing George Floyd on May 25 by kneeling on his neck for more than eight minutes.
Judge Peter Cahill upheld a more serious charge of second-degree murder as well as a second-degree manslaughter charge against Mr. Chauvin, 44, who was released on $1 million bail this month.
The ruling, which was issued on Wednesday in Hennepin County, Minn., came in response to a motion by lawyers representing Mr. Chauvin and three other former officers to dismiss all charges against them for lack of probable cause.
Judge Cahill also upheld the charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter that were filed against the three other former police officers who were at the scene of Mr. Floyd’s arrest and death: J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao.
Keith Ellison, the Minnesota attorney general, said in a statement on Thursday that Judge Cahill had based his decision on how appellate courts have interpreted the statute for third-degree murder, which carries a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison.
“We are considering our options in light of the court’s strong order on the remaining charges,” Mr. Ellison said.
In Minnesota, a charge of second-degree murder is applied when a person is believed to have unintentionally caused someone’s death while also intentionally inflicting or attempting to inflict bodily harm upon the victim. It carries a maximum sentence of 40 years.
Mr. Chauvin’s actions in pinning down Mr. Floyd, as captured in videos of the episode, most likely meet that standard, said Richard Frase, a criminal law professor at the University of Minnesota.
“In order to hold Chauvin liable for second-degree felony murder, the prosecution has to prove that death occurred in the course of committing a felony assault,” Professor Frase said in an interview. “Any felony assault can be the basis for felony murder in Minnesota.”
“The degree of assault that someone can be convicted of in Minnesota does not depend on the degree of harm they intended,” he added. “All the prosecution here needs is third-degree assault, which can result in substantial bodily harm, such as breaking a bone but also loss of consciousness.”
The prosecution does not have to show that Mr. Chauvin intended to seriously injure Mr. Floyd or cause him to lose consciousness, Professor Frase said. Prosecutors, he said, need to show only that Mr. Chauvin intended to cause some amount of bodily harm.
“All we have to show is he intended some bodily harm, it escalated into substantial bodily harm and that’s felony assault,” Professor Frase said. “And then the victim died, so it’s felony murder.”
Mr. Ellison emphasized in his statement that the court “has sustained eight out of nine charges against the defendants in the murder of George Floyd, including the most serious charges against all four defendants.”
“This means that all four defendants will stand trial for murder and manslaughter, both in the second degree,” Mr. Ellison said.
“This is an important, positive step forward in the path toward justice for George Floyd, his family, our community, and Minnesota,” he said. “We look forward to presenting the prosecution’s case to a jury in Hennepin County.”
Mr. Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was arrested on May 25 after a convenience store employee called 911 and told the police that Mr. Floyd had bought cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill.
Video footage shot by witnesses shows that 17 minutes after the first squad car arrived at the scene, Mr. Floyd was unconscious and pinned beneath Mr. Chauvin’s knee, showing no signs of life. His death prompted worldwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism.
As part of the conditions of his release, Mr. Chauvin is required to stay in Minnesota until his trial, which is scheduled for March. The Minnesota home he owned with his wife, who has filed for divorce, was sold for $279,000 in late August, property records show.
Also on Thursday, prosecutors announced charges against a truck driver who drove a fuel truck through a protest on a bridge in Minneapolis six days after Mr. Floyd was killed.
The driver, Bogdan Vechirko, 35, of Otsego, Minn., nearly struck protesters and caused panic as he drove on the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River, prosecutors in Hennepin County said. He was charged with a felony count of threats of violence and a gross misdemeanor count of criminal vehicular operation.
Prosecutors say a police investigation with a similar truck showed that Mr. Vechirko should have had adequate time to stop before reaching the protesters.
But Kevin DeVore, Mr. Vechirko’s lawyer, disputed that finding.
“The state says he acted with some amount of intent to cause fear and threaten them, and that’s just not the case,” Mr. DeVore said. “There were no barricades or warning signs saying that the road was closed, and he could not simply slam on the brakes without jackknifing an 88,000-pound vehicle full of gasoline once he came upon people in the road.”
Mr. DeVore noted that once his client had stopped, a number of protesters pulled him from the cab and beat him until other protesters intervened.