Minnesota's 3rd degree murder charge, explained

Minnesota's third-degree murder statute reads: "Whoever, without intent…causes the death of another by perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life…" But two high-profile cases are challenging the definiton and application of the law.

On March 11, Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter Cahill reinstated the third-degree murder charge against Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged in the death of George Floyd. Chauvin already faced charges of second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the case.  

Cahill dismissed the third-degree murder against Chauvin charged last October, saying it did not apply to this case. 

Prosecutors pushed to reinstate the charge came after the Minnesota Court of Appeals recently ruled a third-degree murder charge was appropriate in the case of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, who was convicted in a deadly 2017 shooting. 

In so doing, the court helped define some of the complicated language around the statute that had focused on the idea that a defendant was thought to have to endanger multiple lives to be charged with the crime. In the case of the Memorial Day arrest, Floyd was the only person in danger with Chauvin’s knee to the back of his neck for some nine minutes.

Judge Cahill denied the state’s motion to reinstate the third-degree murder charge against Chauvin, but prosecutors appealed his rejection. 

The Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on March 1 over reinstating the charge. The appeals court ruled Judge Cahill made the mistake of not following the Noor ruling as precedence, ordering him to reconsider his decision. 

In explaining his rationale for reinstating the third-degree murder charge against Chauvin, Judge Cahill reiterated that Noor and Chauvin are factually different cases, but because the appeals court has defined that third-degree murder can be targeted at a single person, it is the law in Minnesota right now. 

Supreme Court asked to clarify Noor case

Noor’s attorneys are appealing to the Minnesota Supreme Court and Chauvin’s team insists they have to wait until the issue is fully resolved. The petition to the high court states, "This Court’s review is necessary to clarify the conduct that is necessary to establish third-degree murder and sufficiently differentiate murder from manslaughter."

The Minnesota Supreme Court says it will review the third-degree murder conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor this summer, Chief Justice Lorie Gildea said.

What is a depraved mind or heart?

An opinion cited in a Maryland appeals court case, Debettencourt v. State, said a depraved mind involves "a knowingly dangerous act with reckless and wanton unconcern and indifference as to whether anyone is harmed or not." It was also described as "a state of mind just as blameworthy, just as anti-social… just as truly murderous as the specific intents to kill..."

The charge was also used to charge a Baltimore police officer with the murder of Freddie Gray, who died in police custody after he was driven to jail in a police van. The officer was found not guilty.

3rd degree murder sentencing guidelines

The average sentence for third degree murder, if convicted, and without a previous criminal history, is in the range of 10 to 15 years in prison, according to the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission. In Minnesota, inmates typically serve two-thirds of their sentence while incarcerated.