George Floyd killing: Ex-cop pleads guilty to aiding, abetting manslaughter

George Floyd Officers Civil Rights
Attorney Earl Gray (right) questions Thomas Lane (left) before U.S. District Judge Magnuson during his trial in the killing of George Floyd in federal court in St. Paul on Feb. 21.
Cedric Hohnstadt | AP file

Updated 1:13 p.m.

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, Thomas Lane will have a count of aiding and abetting second-degree unintentional murder dismissed. Lane, along with J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao, has already been convicted on federal counts of willfully violating Floyd's rights during the May 2020 restraint that led to the Black man's death.

The state is recommending a sentence of three years for Lane and has agreed to allow him to serve the time in a federal prison.

Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office was prosecuting the case against Lane, said in a statement that he’s pleased that Lane has accepted responsibility.

“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.”

The legal team representing Floyd’s family led by attorney Ben Crump said in a statement that Lane’s guilty plea is another step towards closure for the family. But that the plea comes after Lane’s conviction on federal charges, and as a result of the efforts of prosecutors and diligence of jurors.

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“These individuals and many more should be commended for their efforts leading towards today. 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,” Crump’s team said in the statement.

In his guilty plea filing, Lane said he understands that a judge won’t accept a guilty plea from someone who says they’re innocent of the crime: “I now make no claim to be innocent.”

Cahill will formally accept Lane’s guilty plea at his sentencing, which is scheduled for Sept. 21.

Angi Porter, an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center, said no one involved, including prosecutors and Floyd’s family, want to go through yet another trial.

“Thao and Kueng are more culpable, they’re more culpable in the public consciousness,” Porter said. “There’s not much for them that would be attractive in a state court trial. I would not be surprised if they are in negotiations right now – those things are very private.”

The trial for Thao and Kueng is scheduled to start next month. It would be the third trial for Floyd’s killing, using many of the same witnesses and much of the same evidence. Porter said Lane’s guilty plea may provide incentive for his co-defendants to reach their own deal with prosecutors.

Their former colleague, Derek 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. Chauvin earlier was convicted of state charges of murder and manslaughter and sentenced to 22 1/2 years in the state case.

Thomas Lane
Thomas Lane
Hennepin County Sheriff's Office via AP

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.

Floyd, 46, died May 25, 2020, after Chauvin, who is white, pinned him to the ground with a knee on his neck, as Floyd repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe. 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.

Lane, who is white, was convicted along with Kueng and Thao 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, which was caught on video and sparked protests around the world.

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, Lane’s attorney, Earl Gray, said it was hard for the defense to negotiate when the three still didn't know what their federal sentences would be.

Agreeing to the plea deal in state court may signal that Lane may not be sentenced to much more time in prison at his upcoming federal sentencing, said Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.

But Lane’s guilty plea, on top of his earlier conviction in federal court, may also be a sign that courts are taking the actions of police officers seriously.

“What we’ve seen in this case consistently is an accountability for actions that police officers too often aren’t held accountable for. Whether it’s as in the federal case, not taking action, or in this case, aiding and abetting an officer who was doing the wrong thing,” he said.

Kueng, who is Black, and Thao, who is Hmong American, also scheduled to go to trial in June on state charges.