Tou Thao, left, and J. Alexander Kueng. (Hennepin County Sheriff's Office/AP)
4 min

MINNEAPOLIS — A former Minneapolis police officer who held George Floyd’s back as he begged for breath and ultimately lost a pulse beneath the knee of officer Derek Chauvin nearly 2½ years ago pleaded guilty Monday to a state charge of aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter in the killing.

J. Alexander Kueng entered his guilty plea Monday, just as jury selection was set to begin in the third trial over Floyd’s killing. As part of the plea deal, prosecutors dropped a count of aiding and abetting second-degree unintentional murder against Kueng.

Kueng had previously rejected a plea deal, but after weekend negotiations between prosecutors and his defense, the former officer appeared in court Monday as his attorney announced that they had negotiated an end to the case.

Asked to enter a new plea by Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter A. Cahill, who is overseeing the case, Kueng replied, “Guilty, your honor.”

If he had not pleaded guilty, Kueng would have faced a joint trial alongside former officer Tou Thao on state charges related to Floyd’s death. Thao, who held back bystanders at the scene, proceeded with his case but asked for a trial before Cahill instead of a jury.

Kueng and Thao, along with their former colleague Thomas K. Lane, were previously convicted in February in federal court of violating Floyd’s civil rights when they failed to render medical aid to Floyd as he complained he could not breathe and lost consciousness during a fatal May 2020 arrest.

A jury also found Kueng and Thao guilty of violating Floyd’s rights when they didn’t intervene as Chauvin pressed his knees into Floyd’s neck and back for nearly 9½ minutes.

Lane, who held Floyd’s legs, was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison in July for violating Floyd’s rights. He pleaded guilty in May to a state charge of aiding and abetting manslaughter and was sentenced last month to three years in prison. The plea deal allowed Lane to serve his state sentence concurrently with his federal sentence. He is in custody at a federal prison outside Denver.

Chauvin pleaded guilty in December to violating Floyd’s rights and was sentenced July 7 to 20 years in federal prison. He is already serving a 22½-year state sentence for Floyd’s murder that he will serve concurrently.

In July, a judge sentenced Kueng to 36 months in prison and Thao to 42 months in prison on the federal charges related to Floyd’s death. Both officers have filed notice that they plan to appeal — though it was not immediately clear how Kueng’s guilty plea would affect that case.

According to details of the plea deal read in court by Kueng’s attorney, Thomas Plunkett, his client agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a state sentence of 42 months in prison, which he will be allowed to serve concurrently with his federal sentence.

Kueng earlier this month began serving his federal sentence at a facility in Lisbon, Ohio. Thao is serving his federal sentence at a prison near Lexington, Ky. — though he is currently being held at a county jail in Minneapolis, where he will remain until Cahill renders a decision in the case.

On Monday, Robert Paule, Thao’s attorney, and prosecutors agreed that they would file written evidence — including closing arguments — by Nov. 17 in Thao’s case, which Paule indicated would probably include transcripts of the previous trials.

Cahill indicated he would then take 90 days after that date to render a verdict. Prosecutors and Thao’s attorneys have agreed to submit evidence based on the manslaughter charge alone. If he is found guilty on that charge, prosecutors have agreed to drop the aiding and abetting second-degree murder charge, as well as their request for a tougher sentence because of Floyd’s suffering.

In August, Thao told Cahill that it would be a “lie and a sin” for him to agree to plead guilty to charges related to Floyd’s death.

On Monday, the former officer said little in court, beyond acknowledging to his attorney and to Cahill that he understood he was waiving “certain rights” by bypassing a jury trial — including the right to testify in his own defense.

At one point, Cahill asked Thao about a concussion he had suffered “recently” — though the judge offered no additional details about the ex-officer’s injury or how it occurred. Thao’s attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment after the hearing.

“Do you think you’ve had enough time to recover from that so that it’s not affecting how you think?” Cahill asked Thao. “Do you think you’re clearheaded enough?”

“Yes, your honor,” Thao replied.

According to sentencing guidelines read in court Monday, Thao faces between 41 and 58 months in prison if convicted on the manslaughter charge.