Ex-Minneapolis police officer Thomas Lane pleaded guilty Wednesday to aiding and abetting manslaughter in the murder of George Floyd two years ago on a south Minneapolis street, avoiding a trial next month in Hennepin County District Court.
Lane, 39, entered the plea in a five-minute court session with Judge Peter Cahill in the same room where Derek Chauvin was convicted of Floyd's murder a year ago.
In exchange for the guilty plea, a count of aiding and abetting second-degree murder was dismissed and Lane agreed to a sentence of three years. He's expected to serve the state sentence in a federal prison concurrently with his sentence for a conviction earlier this year of violating Floyd's civil rights. He has yet to be sentenced for either conviction.
After the court session, Lane's attorney, Earl Gray, issued a written statement, saying his client faced the prospect of a mandatory 12-year sentence if he were convicted on the heavier charge of aiding and abetting murder.
"My client did not want to risk losing the murder case so he decided to plead guilty to manslaughter with a three-year sentence, to be released in two years," Gray said. "He has a newborn baby and did not want to risk not being part of the child's life."
Ex-officers Tou Thao and J. Alexander Kueng remain scheduled for a Hennepin County trial next month on charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder and manslaughter in Floyd's death. They also were convicted of federal charges in February.
Thao's lawyer, Robert Paule, was in court for the plea hearing and declined to comment as he left. Kueng's lawyer, Thomas Plunkett, was not present.
Lane's family wasn't in the courtroom, and Floyd's family members watched the hearing virtually. In a written statement through lawyer Benjamin Crump, Floyd's family said the plea is "another step towards closure" and "reflects a certain level of accountability," but they noted that the plea came only after Lane's conviction in federal court.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office is leading the prosecution of the officers, expressed satisfaction that Lane "accepted responsibility in Mr. 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. While accountability is not justice, this is a significant moment in this case and a necessary resolution on our continued journey to justice," the statement said.
Lane's guilty plea came a week before the two-year anniversary of Floyd's murder, which ripped open wounds over race and policing across the country. In the Twin Cities, Floyd's murder led to days of unrest and kick-started a reckoning over racial discrimination and the nature of policing that continues to roil the community.
Lane is the officer heard on his body camera video asking twice about rolling Floyd from his stomach onto his side so he could breathe. Chauvin rebuffed the suggestions.
In court Wednesday, Lane's bearded face was visible since he was maskless. He spoke only briefly, responding to Cahill firmly with "yes, your honor" and "guilty, your honor."
In the written plea deal signed by Lane, the former officer acknowledged having "specific knowledge" of the risk of death by positional asphyxia in Floyd's arrest because he could hear him repeatedly say he couldn't breathe.
Lane "was also aware" Floyd "fell silent as the restraint continued, eventually did not have a pulse, and appeared to have lost consciousness," the document said. Lane acknowledged knowing that Chauvin had his knee on Floyd's neck and upper back and that Kueng was restraining Floyd's hands.
Along with Kueng and Thao, Lane was convicted in U.S. District Court in February of violating Floyd's civil rights in what was believed to be the first successful prosecution of police officers of its kind in the country.
A federal jury determined all three failed to render aid to Floyd as he lay prone with his hands cuffed behind his back under the pressure of Chauvin's knee on his neck for almost 10 minutes. Kueng and Thao also were convicted of a second charge of failing to intervene to stop Chauvin from using excessive force.
In the widely circulated bystander video of Floyd's detention and death, Thao is the officer standing, keeping the distraught group of onlookers on the sidewalk as the other officers held down Floyd as he cried out over and over that he couldn't breathe.
Lane and Kueng, who were both in their first week on the job, weren't as prominent in the video because they were obscured by their squad car parked outside Cup Foods at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue S. Kueng restrained Floyd's midsection while Lane was at his legs and feet.
The rookie officers were first on the scene after a call from a clerk at Cup Foods complaining that Floyd had apparently used a counterfeit $20 to buy cigarettes. They handcuffed Floyd and were trying to get him into the back of their squad vehicle when Chauvin arrived with Thao, and Floyd went to the the ground before the officers pinned him down.
Pretrial preparations are well under way for the upcoming state trial of Thao and Kueng. Unlike Chauvin's trial, which was seen throughout the world, this trial will not be livestreamed beyond the courthouse, and seating in the courtroom will be severely limited.
Chauvin already is serving a sentence of more than 22 years for his murder conviction in state court. He also has pleaded guilty and awaits sentencing on federal civil rights violations in Floyd's death and another unrelated case involving a 14-year-old boy.
All four former officers are expected to be sentenced for the federal convictions by U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson. Legal observers have said that Thao, Kueng and Lane face federal sentences of at least three to four years in prison.
Magnuson has substantial discretion in sentencing the three former officers in part because in addition to determining guilt, the jury found that their actions caused Floyd's death. A date for sentencing has not been set.
Sentencing for Lane's manslaughter count is scheduled for Sept. 21 in Cahill's courtroom.
This story is part of a collaboration between the Star Tribune and FRONTLINE that includes the upcoming documentary, "Police on Trial," which premieres May 31 at 9 p.m. CT on PBS.