MINNEAPOLIS — A former Minneapolis police officer pleaded guilty Wednesday to a state charge of aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter in the killing of George Floyd.
As part of the plea deal, a count of aiding and abetting second-degree unintentional murder against Thomas Lane will be dismissed. Lane and former Officers J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao have already been convicted on federal counts of willfully violating Floyd's rights during the restraint that led to his death.
The guilty plea comes a week before the two-year anniversary of Floyd's May 25, 2020, killing. Floyd, 46, died after Officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, pinned him to the ground with a knee on Floyd's neck as the Black man repeatedly said he couldn't breathe. The killing, captured on widely viewed bystander video, sparked protests in Minneapolis and around the globe as part of a reckoning over racial injustice.
Lane and Kueng helped to restrain Floyd, who was handcuffed. Lane held down Floyd's legs and Kueng knelt on Floyd's back. Thao kept bystanders from intervening during the 9 1/2-minute restraint.
The state and Lane's attorneys agreed to a recommended sentence of three years — which is below state sentencing guidelines — and prosecutors agreed to allow him to serve that sentence at the same time as any federal sentence, and in a federal prison. He has not yet been sentenced in the federal case.
Lane, who is white, told Judge Peter Cahill that he understood the agreement. When asked how he would plead, he said: "Guilty, your honor."
Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office prosecuted the case, issued a statement saying he was pleased that Lane accepted responsibility for his role in Floyd's death.
"His acknowledgment he did something wrong is an important step toward healing the wounds of the Floyd family, our community, and the nation," Ellison said. "While accountability is not justice, this is a significant moment in this case and a necessary resolution on our continued journey to justice."
Lane didn't want to risk a lengthy prison sentence, his attorney says
Lane's attorney, Earl Gray, said in a statement that Lane did not want to risk a lengthy prison sentence if convicted of murder, so he agreed to plead guilty to the manslaughter count.
"He has a newborn baby and did not want to risk not being part of the child's life," Gray said.
Lane remained free on bond and a presentence investigation was ordered. He is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 21 on the state charge.
The hearing was streamed over Zoom for Floyd's family members. Their attorneys issued a statement afterward, saying Lane's plea "reflects a certain level of accountability," but that it came only after Lane, Kueng and Thao's conviction on the federal charges.
"Hopefully, this plea helps usher in a new era where officers understand that juries will hold them accountable, just as they would any other citizen," family attorneys Ben Crump, Jeff Storms and Antonio Romanucci said. "Perhaps soon, officers will not require families to endure the pain of lengthy court proceedings where their criminal acts are obvious and apparent."
Chauvin pleaded guilty last year to a federal charge of violating Floyd's civil rights and faces a federal sentence ranging from 20 to 25 years. The former officer earlier was convicted of state charges of murder and manslaughter is currently serving 22 1/2 years in the state case.
Lane's plea comes during a week when the country is focused on the deaths of 10 Black people in Buffalo, New York, at the hands of an 18-year-old white man, who carried out the racist, livestreamed shooting Saturday in a supermarket.
3 former officers were convicted in a federal trial
Lane, Kueng and Thao were convicted of federal charges in February, after a monthlong trial that focused on the officers' training and the culture of the police department. 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.
After their federal conviction, there was a question as to whether the state trial would proceed. At an April hearing in state court, prosecutors revealed that they had offered plea deals to all three men, but they were rejected. At the time Gray said it was hard for the defense to negotiate when the three still didn't know what their federal sentences would be.
Under state sentencing guidelines, a person with no criminal record would face a sentence ranging from just under 3 1/2 years to four years and nine moths in prison for second-degree unintentional manslaughter, with the presumptive sentence being four years. Lane's recommended sentence of three years, which still must be approved by the judge, would be less. Prosecutors served notice back in 2020 that they intended to seek longer sentences for Lane, Kueng and Thao.
If Lane had been convicted of aiding and abetting second-degree murder, he would have faced a presumptive 12 1/2 years in prison.
"That's a very sweet deal," John Baker, a former defense attorney who teaches aspiring police officers at St. Cloud State University, said of Lane's agreement. "I don't know how much sweeter the state could've been in an offer for a plea deal."
Baker said a guilty plea makes sense since Lane was looking at much more time if convicted at trial, and is likely going to serve time in federal prison anyway. He said he assumes the same offer has been extended to Thao and Kueng, and he would not be surprised if at least one of them decides to take it.
Lawyers for 2 other officers decline to comment
An attorney for Thao, Robert Paule, was in the courtroom for Lane's plea hearing. When asked if his client would also plead guilty, he replied "No comment."
Kueng's attorney, Tom Plunkett, also declined to comment.
Storms, one of the Floyd family attorneys, said the deal with Lane happened "very quickly." When asked if he knew of any other possible negotiations with Thao or Kueng, he said: "I think the family is hopeful, now that a state and federal jury have spoken, that the other officers will voluntarily be held accountable."
Barring any additional pleas, Kueng, who is Black, and Thao, who is Hmong American, are still scheduled to go to trial in June on state charges. They remain free on bond as they await trial.