Ex-Minneapolis police officers J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao formally rejected a plea offer in court Monday morning that would have allowed them to avoid a state trial and additional prison time from the federal civil rights sentence they received in George Floyd's killing.
At a brief hearing, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank offered to drop charges against Kueng and Thao for aiding and abetting the second-degree murder of George Floyd if they pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of aiding and abetting manslaughter. Frank said prosecutors would have recommended a three-year prison sentence to be served concurrently with the sentences handed down by a federal judge last month for convictions of violating Floyd's civil rights. Kueng received three years in prison, and Thao was sentenced to 3½ years.
Both men declined the offer in front of Judge Peter Cahill.
"It would be a lie and a sin for me to accept a plea deal," Thao said.
Frank said the offer expired Monday, meaning Kueng and Thao are now heading toward an Oct. 24 trial in Hennepin County.
Rejecting the offer means the two former police officers are betting a state jury will come to a different conclusion than a federal one did about their culpability in Floyd's killing. If found guilty at trial on both counts, they face up to 16 years in prison based on Minnesota sentencing guidelines, and prosecutors are asking Cahill to give them more time for aggravated factors.
In a federal sentencing hearing last month, Thao gave a 23-minute speech in which he quoted from Scripture and compared himself to Job, a religious prophet who endured excruciating sacrifice to test his faith. Thao's attorney, Robert Paule, said Attorney General Keith Ellison had at one point offered him a deal entailing two years in prison, but his client rejected it. However, Ellison denies making that offer, said his spokesman, John Stiles.
Kueng and Thao are the last of four defendants still facing charges in connection to Floyd's killing on May 25, 2020, which set off a global reckoning on police brutality and led to riots in Minneapolis that culminated with the torching of the Minneapolis Police Department's Third Precinct station. Bystander video showed veteran officer Derek Chauvin pin down Floyd for more than nine minutes after detaining him on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 at a nearby market. Ex-officer Thomas Lane held down Floyd's legs, Kueng restrained his midsection, and Thao held back a crowd of bystanders who pleaded with the officers to help the dying man.
All four officers were charged in state and federal court. After being found guilty in state court last April, Chauvin pleaded guilty to federal charges of abusing his power as a police officer to violate the Floyd's civil rights as well as those of a 14-year-old in a separate case of excessive force. Chauvin is serving concurrent state and federal sentences of more than 20 years for Floyd's killing.
A federal jury found Lane, Kueng and Thao guilty of depriving Floyd of his civil rights earlier this year, leaving the state charges still in play for the three. Lane agreed to plead guilty this summer to his state charges in an identical deal to the one the others turned down.
In court Monday, Cahill rejected a request from Paule and Kueng's attorney, Thomas Plunkett, to hold the proceedings in private chambers to avoid media attention. Paule said allowing it to proceed in open court made it purely for "public consumption" and would impede a fair trial, and Plunkett said prosecutors have unfairly taken advantage of the media spectacle around the high-profile cases against the officers.
Cahill said he didn't see how their clients declining to plead guilty would harm their credibility with a jury. Cahill also denied Paule's request to gag prosecutors from talking to reporters.
In a statement, Ellison said it's "a standard best practice" to make a record in court when prosecutors offer a plea agreement to ensure the defendant is making a knowing and free decision.
"The defendants have a right to decline the offer and proceed to trial," he said. "The State is ready for trial."
Plunkett and Paule did not respond to requests for comment.