MINNEAPOLIS – Another long and painful trial over the killing of George Floyd was averted on Monday after one former Minneapolis police officer pleaded guilty to manslaughter and another agreed to take a more uncommon approach and let a judge decide his fate based on the evidence in the case.
J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao had been set to stand trial Monday on charges of aiding and abetting both murder and manslaughter in the May 25, 2020, killing of Floyd, who died after another officer kneeled on the Black man’s neck, sparking worldwide protests as part of a broader reckoning over racial injustice.
Instead, Kueng pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter in exchange for the murder count being dismissed. And Thao, who previously told the judge that it “would be lying” to plead guilty, agreed to what's called a stipulated evidence trial on the aiding and abetting manslaughter count. The two sides will work out agreed-upon evidence in his case, file written closing arguments and let Judge Peter Cahill decide guilt or innocence.
If Thao is convicted, the murder count — which carries a presumptive sentence of 12 1/2 years in prison — will be dropped.
The day's developments pushed the long process of prosecuting the officers involved in Floyd's death nearer an end. Derek Chauvin, the white officer who pinned Floyd's neck for 9 1/2 minutes as Floyd said he couldn't breathe and eventually grew still, was convicted in state court in spring 2021 and later pleaded guilty to federal charges. A fourth officer, Thomas Lane, was convicted of federal charges in February and pleaded guilty to state charges in May.
Kueng knelt on Floyd’s back, Lane held his legs and Thao kept bystanders back during the restraint, which was captured on video.
Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office prosecuted the state cases, said in a statement that he hopes Keung’s plea can bring comfort to Floyd’s family and “bring our communities closer to a new era of accountability and justice.” He also said his office is looking forward to a swift resolution of Thao’s case.
Thao waived his right to a jury trial, as well as his right to cross-examine the state's witnesses, call witnesses of his own and testify. But he preserves his right to appeal. His attorney, Bob Paule, told The Associated Press that this allows Thao to still litigate the issue of his guilt or innocence, and "it’s ultimately up to the judge to decide whether this really constitutes aiding and abetting. “
Legal experts say the approach is uncommon in a case like this and could benefit both sides.
“The stipulated bench trial allows him to maintain his innocence and to blame the court if he gets found guilty, rather than make any admissions himself,” said Rachel Moran, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. “On the state’s part, they also don’t want to go to trial. They are exhausted, their witnesses are exhausted. ... They potentially get what they want, which is just a conviction and concurrent prison time, which is all they were looking for.”
As part of his plea agreement, Kueng admitted that he held Floyd’s torso, that he knew from his experience and training that restraining a handcuffed person in a prone position created a substantial risk, and that the restraint of Floyd was unreasonable under the circumstances.
Kueng agreed to a sentence of 3 1/2 years in prison, to be served at the same time as his federal sentence and in federal custody. He will be formally sentenced later and was being returned to federal custody — he has been at a prison in Ohio since early October.
Ben Crump and other attorneys for Floyd's family said in a statement that Kueng's plea shows justice takes time, adding: “We must never forget the horror of what we all saw in that 9-minute video, and that there rightfully should be both accountability for all involved as well as deep lessons learned for police officers and communities everywhere."
In Thao's case, both sides have until Nov. 17 to submit their materials to Cahill, who said he would decide within 90 days. If convicted of manslaughter, Thao would likely get about four years in prison, to be served at the same time as his federal sentence.
Thao, who has been at the federal medical center in Lexington, Kentucky, since early October, said in court that he wished to remain in Hennepin County sheriff's custody while his case proceeds, even though he would be in solitary confinement.
Cahill said in court that Thao had recently suffered a concussion, but he did not say how. When asked if there had been an incident at the federal prison, a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons said he could not comment, citing privacy, safety and security reasons.
Someone familiar with the matter told the AP that Thao was attacked in prison on Friday but only suffered minor injuries. The person could not discuss details of the matter publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.
John Baker, a lawyer and assistant professor of criminal justice studies at St. Cloud State University, said stipulated bench trials can be used when there are concerns about getting an unbiased jury and when a case hinges more on a legal question rather than evidentiary issues.
Mike Brandt, a Minneapolis defense attorney who is also monitoring the case, said: “I think there was incentive for everyone to settle these cases. The state probably had a reality check; that murder charges were questionable. And if they can get (a conviction) without the time and trouble, and frankly without putting the witnesses through all the trauma again, there's a huge benefit in that.”
Chauvin was convicted of state murder and manslaughter charges last year and is serving 22 1/2 years in the state case. He also pleaded guilty to a federal charge of violating Floyd’s civil rights and was sentenced to 21 years. He is serving the sentences concurrently at the Federal Correctional Institution in Tucson, Arizona.
Kueng, Lane and Thao were convicted of federal charges in February: All three were convicted of depriving Floyd of his right to medical care and Thao and Kueng were also convicted of failing to intervene to stop Chauvin during the killing.
Lane, who is white, is serving his 2 1/2-year federal sentence at a facility in Colorado. He's serving a three-year state sentence at the same time. Kueng, who is Black, was sentenced to three years on the federal counts; Thao, who is Hmong American, got a 3 1/2-year federal sentence.
Associated Press writer Michael Balsamo in Washington contributed to this report.
Find AP’s full coverage of the death of George Floyd at: https://apnews.com/hub/death-of-george-floyd