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Former Minneapolis officer pleads guilty to manslaughter in Floyd’s death

Former Minneapolis police officer Thomas Lane pleaded guilty on May 18 to a state charge of aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter in the killing of George Floyd. (AP)

MINNEAPOLIS — A former Minneapolis police officer who held George Floyd’s legs as he begged for breath and ultimately lost a pulse beneath the knee of Derek Chauvin two years ago pleaded guilty Wednesday to a state charge of aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter in the Black man’s killing.

Thomas K. Lane entered his guilty plea early Wednesday before Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter A. Cahill. As part of the plea deal, prosecutors dropped a count of aiding and abetting second-degree unintentional murder against Lane in the case.

“I now make no claim that I am innocent,” the plea agreement, signed Tuesday by Lane, reads.

Lane and two other former officers — J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao — were convicted in February in federal court of violating Floyd’s civil rights when they failed to intervene with Chauvin or provide medical aid to the man as he complained of struggling to breathe before going motionless.

Lane, Kueng and Thao are awaiting sentencing in the federal case. As part of Wednesday’s plea deal, prosecutors suggested a sentence of three years in prison that could be served at the same time as Lane’s federal sentence. The recommendation is below state sentencing guidelines and must ultimately be approved by Cahill, who scheduled Lane’s sentencing for Sept. 21.

Lane, who was not taken into custody, pleaded guilty in the same courtroom where Chauvin was convicted last year of murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death and sentenced to 22 ½ years in prison. In December, Chauvin pleaded guilty to violating Floyd’s civil rights — avoiding a trial in that case.

A federal judge earlier this month accepted a plea deal that would sentence Chauvin up to 25 years in that case — which would be served concurrently with his state murder charge. But no sentencing date has been set.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office has led the state prosecution of Floyd’s killing, said in a statement he was “pleased” that Lane had “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,” Ellison said in the statement. “While accountability is not justice, this is a significant moment in this case and a necessary resolution on our continued journey to justice.”

Former Minneapolis officers found guilty of violating George Floyd’s civil rights

Lane’s guilty plea comes one week before the second anniversary of Floyd’s May 25, 2020, death and just weeks before Lane was set to stand trial with Kueng and Thao on the state charges related to Floyd’s killing. Jury selection in that trial is scheduled to begin June 13 — though Lane’s guilty plea is certain to spark speculation about other potential pleas in the case.

In an April court hearing, Matthew Frank, an assistant Minnesota attorney general and lead prosecutor in the case, confirmed the state had offered plea deals to the three former officers after their federal conviction in February seeking to avoid another trial in the case. Frank offered no public details about what had been offered and implied there had been no further negotiations.

“The offer had a deadline,” Frank said last month. “That deadline has passed.”

It was not immediately clear what led to Lane’s guilty plea. Earl Gray, Lane’s attorney, did not respond to a request for comment.

Court filings had suggested the case was proceeding as normal. In recent days, Gray — along with attorneys for Kueng and Lane — had disclosed witness lists for the upcoming trial and filed motions related to the case. All three attorneys have repeatedly complained about the intense media coverage of the case, suggesting that publicity along with their client’s recent federal convictions made it impossible to find an impartial jury in Hennepin County.

Attorneys for Kueng and Thao declined to comment about Lane’s guilty plea or whether their clients are engaged in plea discussions.

Kueng and Lane had been full-time officers for less than a week when they encountered Floyd as they responded to a 911 call about a counterfeit $20 bill that had been passed at Cup Foods, a local market. Body-camera video from the scene showed Lane pull a gun on Floyd within 15 seconds of encountering the man in a parked car, without announcing who he was or what he was investigating.

Chauvin arrived on the scene a few minutes later with Thao as Lane and Kueng struggled to place Floyd, who was handcuffed, inside a squad car. Body-camera video shows Floyd complaining of claustrophobia and ultimately being placed facedown on a city street, with Chauvin pressing his knees into Floyd’s neck and upper back, Kueng at Floyd’s back and Lane holding the man’s legs. Thao stood a few feet away, pushing back bystanders who increasingly pressed the officers to get off Floyd as he began to lose consciousness.

Video shows Floyd complained at least 25 times of not being able to breathe — cries the officers dismissed even as the man went limp.

How George Floyd spent his final hours

Lane testified in the federal trial about how he twice asked Chauvin whether they should reposition Floyd — requests that his lawyer has argued proves that he tried to intervene with a senior officer but was rebuffed. Lane later performed chest compressions on Floyd inside an ambulance, several minutes after Kueng could no longer find the man’s pulse, but prosecutors have contended that Lane took action too late.

Floyd’s killing, captured on a viral Facebook video, sparked historic worldwide protests and spurred an American reckoning on issues of race and justice — though some fear the urgency around those issues have faded against the backdrop of a nation that appears more divided than ever on issues of race and policing.

Floyd’s family members watched Lane’s change-of-plea hearing Wednesday on Zoom. Afterward, members of their legal team — Ben Crump, Antonio Romanucci and Jeff Storms — called the guilty plea “another step towards closure” but said it reflects “a certain level of accountability” since it came after Lane was convicted by a jury on 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,” the attorneys said in a statement. “Perhaps soon, officers will not require families to endure the pain of lengthy court proceedings where their criminal acts are obvious and apparent.”

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