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George Floyd Case: Judge Keeps Derek Chauvin's Most Serious Murder Charge, Drops 3rd-Degree Murder; Charges Stand For Other 3 Officers

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- The judge in the George Floyd case has dropped one of the murder charges for former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who continues to face a more serious murder charge, along with a manslaughter charge. The charges for the other three officers in the case also stand.

On Thursday, Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill dismissed Chauvin's third-degree murder charge, but denied a request to dismiss the ex-officer's more serious second-degree unintentional murder charge. His second-degree manslaughter charge also remains.

According to the court documents, probable cause does not exist for the third-degree murder charge against Chauvin. The judge decided that state law is clear that the actions must put others at risk, and that because Chauvin's actions only focused on Floyd, the third-degree murder charge doesn't apply.

Community activists and leaders reacted to the news at a rally and march Thursday for the 25th annual National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality.

"Dropping a charge, we'll just have to go with it," said Monique Cullars-Doty of Black Lives Matter. "Not really happy about dropping any extra charges. Overall, I don't think the charges are harsh enough."

Michelle Gross with Communities United Against Police Brutality said she spent Thursday talking to lawyers about the dropped charge.

"We were pretty concerned about this very low charge being levied in the beginning, and now we think the charges that they charged are more realistic," Gross said.

Gross organized the march that began at Minneapolis Police's 4th Precinct and went to a memorial site for Jamar Clark, who was shot and killed during an encounter with two MPD officers.

The protest focused on police accountability, calling for a civilian oversight panel, and an end to the practice of armed officers responding to mental health crises.

Legal experts not involved in the case say the dropping of the lesser charge against Chauvin was expected.

"I wasn't surprised at all," defense attorney Mike Brandt told WCCO. "We all did what I will call head-scratching -- how is this charge going to stand because of the case law."

The ACLU of Minnesota doesn't want people to think dropping the third-degree murder charge means no justice. Executive Director John Gordon says the move allows jurors to focus on the more serious charge and the more probable case.

"One thing that jumps out of 107 pages is that Judge Cahill is just not buying what these officers were trying to convince him of," Gordon said.

Cahill also ruled that he will not dismiss aiding and abetting charges from the other three officers -- Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng. The attorneys for those former officers argued lack of probable cause.

Gov. Tim Walz announced early Thursday afternoon that he activated the Minnesota National Guard, about 100 soldiers, to assist local law enforcement in the Twin Cities.

"In light of developments in the George Floyd case, we've taken the precautionary step of asking the Minnesota National Guard to prepare to help ensure safety for Minnesotans," said Governor Walz. "I want to remind Minnesotans that today's ruling marks a positive step in the path toward justice for George Floyd."

The Minnesota State Patrol also mobilized state troopers to aid local law enforcement.

Cahill is still deciding whether the jury should be anonymous; if the trial should happen in Hennepin County; and whether the officers involved should have separate trials.

The defense teams for the four ex-Minneapolis police officers wanted to keep the jury anonymous and sequestered for the integrity of the trial. Prosecutors say that wouldn't be transparent enough.

The defense teams sought to move the trial out of Hennepin County due to publicity concerns, but Judge Cahill has asked them to try to find a suitable jury in Hennepin County before they consider changing locations. Separate trials would, of course, bring separate verdicts.

RELATED: Judge Denies Use Of 2019 George Floyd Arrest Video At Trial

Earlier this week, Cahill ruled that body camera footage from a 2019 arrest of Floyd would not be allowed to be used as evidence in the trial. However, he did say that a transcript of the video may be presented.

Chauvin, who was captured on cellphone video kneeling on Floyd's neck for several minutes as the Black man lay handcuffed, is charged with second-degree unintentional murder and manslaughter. The other three officers face charges of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison reacted to the court's decision Thursday morning.

"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," Ellison said. "This means that all four defendants will stand trial for murder and manslaughter, both in the second degree. This is an important, positive step forward in the path toward justice for George Floyd, his family, our community, and Minnesota. We look forward to presenting the prosecution's case to a jury in Hennepin County."

Ellison says the court's decision to dismiss one of the lesser charges is "based on how appellate courts have interpreted the statute in question."

"We are considering our options in light of the court's strong order on the remaining charges," he said.

WCCO reached out to the four former officers attorneys and got a brief comment from Thomas Lane's attorney, Earl Grey, who told us simply "now we go to trial."

The trial for the former officers is currently set for March of 2021.

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