A former Minneapolis police officer pleaded guilty Monday to aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter in the murder of George Floyd just as jury selection was about to begin. Another former officer waived his right to a jury trial, setting up an unusual procedure in which the judge will issue a verdict after lawyers submit written arguments.
The plea deal for J. Alexander Kueng provides for 3½ years in prison, with prosecutors agreeing to drop the count of accessory to second degree murder. Kueng is the second officer to plead guilty to the state charge, following Thomas Lane, who pleaded guilty earlier this year.
Their former colleague, Tou Thao, rejected a plea deal earlier this year, telling a judge that “it would be a lie” to agree to such a deal. On Monday, he agreed to pursue a modified procedure called a trial by stipulated evidence, in which he accepts certain evidence against him and waives his rights to a jury trial and to testify.
Both parties will establish agreed evidence against Thao and prepare written closing arguments. They will submit them to Judge Peter Cahill by November 17, with Cahill expected to rule on guilt or innocence within 90 days. The process includes an agreement to drop the aiding murder charge if Thao is found guilty on the less serious charge. With such a sentence, Thao would probably get around four years in prison.
All three were convicted in February on federal charges of willfully violating the civil rights of Floyd, who was black. Lane was sentenced to 2½ years in the federal case. Kueng was sentenced to three years and Thao was sentenced to 3½ years, but for some Floyd family members and activists the sentences were too low.
Floyd, 46, died on May 25, 2020, after Officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, pinned him to the ground with a knee on Floyd’s neck as he repeatedly repeated that he would not couldn’t breathe. The murder, captured on widely viewed bystander video, sparked protests in Minneapolis and around the world amid a judgment on racial injustice.
Kueng and Lane helped restrain Floyd, who was handcuffed. Kueng knelt on Floyd’s back and Lane held down Floyd’s legs. Thao stopped bystanders from intervening during the 9½-minute detention.
As part of his plea agreement, Kueng admitted that he was holding Floyd’s torso, that he knew from experience and training that restraining a handcuffed person in a prone position created substantial risk, and that restraining Floyd was being unreasonable under the circumstances.
Kueng’s plea called for him to simultaneously serve his state and federal terms, just as Lane does.
Chauvin was convicted of state murder and manslaughter last year and is currently serving a 22-and-a-half-year sentence in the state case. He also pleaded guilty to a federal charge of violating Floyd’s civil rights and was sentenced to 21 years for that and an unrelated case involving a 14-year-old boy. He is concurrently serving his sentences at the Federal Correctional Institution in Tucson, Arizona.
Kueng is black, Lane is white, and Thao is Hmong American. They were convicted of federal charges in February after a month-long trial focusing on officer training and police department culture. All three were found guilty of depriving Floyd of his right to medical care, and Thao and Kueng were also found guilty of failing to intervene to arrest Chauvin during the murder.
If Kueng had been convicted of aiding and abetting second degree murder, he would have been sentenced to 12½ years in prison.