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Three Guilty Verdicts for One Crime: Here’s Why and What It Means for Sentencing


The jury found Derek Chauvin guilty of all three counts he was facing — second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter — for the same crime: pinning George Floyd’s neck to the asphalt with his knee until he stopped breathing.

When juries can choose among different counts and instead pick “all of the above,” it raises questions of how one act can meet the definition of three separate crimes. In this case, Mr. Chauvin was found guilty of:

1) causing the death of a human being, without intent, while committing or attempting to commit an assault (second-degree murder);

2) unintentionally causing a death by committing an act that is eminently dangerous to other persons while exhibiting a depraved mind, with reckless disregard for human life (third-degree murder);

3) creating an unreasonable risk, by consciously taking the chance of causing death or great bodily harm to someone else (manslaughter).

Neither murder charge required the jury to find that Mr. Chavin intended to kill Mr. Floyd. Nor did the manslaughter charge. So the jury could have determined a state of mind for Mr. Chauvin (the legal term of art is “mens rea”) that would cover all three charges.

The separate acts the jury had to find Mr. Chauvin committed also seem compatible with each other. To streamline the language a bit, “committing an assault” and “committing an act that is eminently dangerous to other persons” and “creating an unreasonable risk” can all go together.

In fact, “eminently dangerous” is a synonym for unreasonably risky. And both coexist easily with committing an assault.

An appeals court could disagree with this analysis and throw out one or more of the counts. Whether that affects Mr. Chauvin’s sentence depends on how Judge Peter A. Cahill parses it.

If the judge follows Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines, because Mr. Chauvin has no criminal history, he would receive 12.5 years for each murder charge and four years for manslaughter, for a total of 29 years in prison, if the sentences ran consecutively.

But the maximum charge for second-degree murder is 40 years, the maximum for third-degree murder is 25, and the maximum for manslaughter is 10. So if the judge departs from the guidelines, he could sentence Mr. Chauvin to many years in prison without relying on all three charges.

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