One of the two ex-Minneapolis police officers charged with aiding and abetting George Floyd’s killing pleaded guilty Monday, and the other officer agreed to waive his right to a jury trial that was scheduled to begin this week.
The decision by fired officer J. Alexander Kueng came as jury selection was about to start in Hennepin County District Court. After Kueng’s plea deal was announced, co-defendant Tou Thao told District Judge Peter Cahill that he would go forward with a trial by stipulated facts rather than before a jury.
Attorney Robert Paule said that means Cahill will review all the evidence in Thao’s case, to be received by Nov. 17, and issue a verdict by mid-February.
The decisions avoid a joint trial that was expected to last until mid-December and involve dozens of witnesses recounting Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020, by former police officer Derek Chauvin in south Minneapolis.
Kueng admitted to aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter, specifically being culpably negligent and creating an unreasonable risk. His attorney, Thomas Plunkett, said the negotiated settlement included dismissal of a second count of second-degree unintentional murder.
Paule said Cahill will issue a verdict only on the manslaughter count against Thao. If Cahill finds Thao guilty, the sentence could range from three to five years, Paule said. In the meantime Thao will remain in segregated custody at the Hennepin County jail, Cahill said.
Plunkett said Kueng’s 3 1⁄2 year state sentence will be served concurrently with the 3-year federal sentence that he’s serving at the federal prison in Elkton, Ohio.
Chauvin was convicted last year of second-degree murder and manslaughter for pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than 9 minutes outside Cup Foods as Floyd pleaded for his life. Chauvin later pled guilty to federal charges for violating Floyd’s civil rights and is serving a 20-year prison sentence.
Kueng, Thao and fellow officer Thomas Lane were found guilty of federal charges in a jury trial and are serving federal sentences ranging from 2 1⁄2 to 3 1⁄2 years. Kueng and Lane helped Chauvin hold a handcuffed Floyd on the ground while Thao restrained agitated bystanders concerned for Floyd’s well-being.
They each faced charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting manslaughter. If found guilty on both counts, they could have received at least 16 years in prison.
Kueng, 29, and Thao, 36, had rejected an offer that Lane, 39, accepted to avoid a state trial. That plea deal would have allowed them to serve their state sentences at the same time as their federal sentences.
Criminal defense attorney Michael Brandt said the two outcomes reflect the different roles the defendants played in the case. Kueng was actively engaged in holding Floyd down, which made him more culpable, he said, but Thao’s actions may not have met the elements of a manslaughter charge. Brandt said it’s a strategic decision by his attorney.
Thao’s attorney “trusts that Cahill will be able to sift through the emotion of this case,” Brandt said. The facts aren’t really disputed, he said: “For heaven’s sakes, this is all on video. And Cahill lived through the [Chauvin] trial, so he knows as well as anyone what the evidence is.”
Brandt added that everyone connected to the joint trial — attorneys, legal staffers and the community at large — must be relieved by the defendants’ decisions.
“Certainly the witnesses don’t want to have to come back into court and relive what they went through in the other two trials,” he said. “That’s relatively traumatic for witnesses to have to go through that.”
Attorney General Keith Ellison issued a statement Monday to thank the witnesses who were preparing to testify in the third trial connected to Floyd’s killing.
“Kueng is now the second officer involved in Floyd’s death to accept responsibility through a guilty plea,” Ellison said. “That acknowledgment hopefully can bring comfort to Floyd’s family and bring our communities closer to a new era of accountability and justice.”
The attorney general added that he looked forward to a swift resolution in Thao’s stipulated bench trial.
Brian Peters, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, issued a statement saying that the defendants’ decisions mark “the closure of a painful time for our community” and state law enforcement officers.
“We must ensure a trusting relationship with those we serve,” Peters said. “During these difficult times, communities from all over the state have supported their local law enforcement agencies. We want to take this time to thank you for your continued support, even when it wasn’t popular to do so.”
Star Tribune staff writers Paul Walsh and Rochelle Olson contributed to this report.