Explaining the New Second Degree Murder Charge Against Derek Chauvin

On Wednesday, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, now in charge of the prosecution of Derek Chauvin and three other officers involved in the death of George Floyd, amended the charges against Chauvin to include second-degree murder charges. Some of the initial press reports incorrectly stated that the new charge was second-degree intentional murder, but what is charged is second-degree felony murder. 

The updated complaint against Chauvin now alleges three counts: 1) second-degree felony murder, 2) third-degree depraved heart murder, and 3) second-degree manslaughter. The jury will have the option of convicting Chauvin of any or all of the above. If convicted of more than one, he would be sentenced only for the most serious convicted offense.

The political rationale for new and (ostensibly) more serious second-degree murder charge is obvious, but the actual strategic rationale is less clear.

Felony murder, like “depraved heart” murder, is an ancient doctrine inherited from English common law. It holds that anyone who accidentally kills another while committing a felony is guilty of murder. The doctrine is highly controversial, in part because at common law there were only a handful of felonies, while today there are hundreds. It has been abolished in England and in several American jurisdictions.

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