A former police officer in the US city of Minneapolis has been found guilty of aiding and abetting in the 2020 killing of George Floyd, whose death at the hands of police set off mass racial justice protests across the United States.
Tou Thao, who already had been convicted in federal court of violating Floyd’s civil rights, was the last of the four former officers facing judgement in state court over the killing.
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He rejected a plea agreement and, instead of going to trial, let Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill decide the verdict based on written filings by each side and evidence presented in previous cases. Cahill’s Monday ruling was released on Tuesday.
Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis officer captured on video kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes while he gasped for air and repeated, “I can’t breathe”, was found guilty of murdering Floyd in 2021.
Two other former officers, Thomas Lane and J Alexander Kueng, pleaded guilty last year to aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter, the same charge that Thao faced.
With Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck during the fatal arrest on May 25, 2020, Lane and Kueng restrained his knees and buttocks.
While Floyd was pinned, Thao stood to one side and kept back a small crowd of people, including an off-duty firefighter, who repeatedly yelled at the police to get off the 46-year-old and check his pulse.
Unlike the other three former officers, Thao maintained that he did nothing wrong. When he rejected a plea deal in state court last August, he said “it would be lying” to plead guilty.
However, prosecutor Matthew Frank wrote that Thao knew that his fellow officers were restraining Floyd in a way that was “extremely dangerous” because it could stop his breathing — “the exact condition from which Floyd repeatedly complained he was suffering”.
“Yet Thao made the conscious decision to aid that dangerous restraint: He actively encouraged the other three officers, and assisted their crime by holding back concerned bystanders,” Frank added.
Defence lawyer Robert Paule argued that the state had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Thao, a nine-year veteran of the force, knew that Chauvin was committing a crime or that Thao intended to help in a crime.
“Every one of Thao’s actions was done based upon the training he received from the Minneapolis Police Department,” Paule wrote.
Thao’s lawyers also wrote that the officer’s police training had told him that knee restraints on a neck were appropriate in some instances, and he believed the other three officers were mindful of Floyd’s medical needs.
“He did not perform the checks himself because he was dealing with crowd control,” they wrote. “Thao rightfully assumed that the other officers were monitoring Floyd as this was their role per training and policy.”
Chauvin was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison for the unintentional second-degree murder of Floyd, and last year received a concurrent sentence of 21 years in prison on federal charges of violating Floyd’s civil rights.
At a federal trial last year, Keung, Lane and Thao were found guilty of violating Floyd’s civil rights. Lane was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison, Kueng to three, and Thao to 3.5 years.
The judge in Hennepin County was expected to order a pre-sentence investigation and set August 7 as the sentencing date for Thao.
Minnesota sentencing guidelines recommend four years on the manslaughter count. Thao will serve his state term concurrent with his federal sentence.