A former Minneapolis police officer who held back bystanders while his colleagues restrained a dying George Floyd has been convicted of aiding and abetting manslaughter.
Tou Thao, who already had been convicted in federal court of violating Floyd’s civil rights, was last of the four former officers facing judgment in state court in Floyd’s killing. 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. His 177-page ruling, filed Monday night, was released Tuesday.
“Thao’s actions were not authorized by law. … There is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Thao’s actions were objectively unreasonable from the perspective of a reasonable police officer, when viewed under the totality of the circumstances,” Cahill wrote.
Prosecutors argued in their filings in January that Thao “acted without courage and displayed no compassion” despite his nearly nine years of experience, and that he disregarded his training even though he could see Floyd’s life ebbing away.
Floyd, a Black man, died May 25, 2020, after officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, pinned him to the ground with his knee on Floyd’s neck for 9 1/2 minutes. Bystander video captured Floyd’s fading cries of “I can’t breathe.” Floyd’s killing touched off protests around the world and forced a national reckoning with police brutality and racism.
Chauvin, the senior officer at the scene, was convicted of murder and manslaughter in April 2021 and later pleaded guilty in the federal case. Two other officers — J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane — pleaded guilty to state charges of aiding and abetting manslaughter and were convicted with Thao in their federal case.
“The conviction of Tou Thao is historic and the right outcome,” Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who led the prosecution team, said in a statement. “It brings one more measure of accountability in the tragic death of George Floyd. Accountability is not justice, but it is a step on the road to justice.”
Defense attorney Robert Paule did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
“Nearly three years ago, the images of a police officer murdering George Floyd shocked the world, shattered our community, and devastated those who knew and loved him,” Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty said in a statement. “Today, the person who aided in the murder by preventing community members from helping Mr. Floyd has been found guilty and held accountable. I hope today’s verdict is another step on the path toward healing for George Floyd’s family.”
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.
Paule argued that the state had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Thao 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.
He argued that Thao “reasonably believed” that Floyd was experiencing a disputed condition known as “excited delirium” that some medical examiners have attributed as a cause of other in-custody deaths, particularly when someone has taken drugs. Paule said the actions Thao took were aimed at helping to get Floyd medical attention quickly. He said Thao was not aware that Floyd was not breathing or had no pulse.
But Frank noted that witnesses who believe excited delirium is a real condition testified previously that Floyd displayed none of the symptoms.
The judge ordered a presentence investigation and set Aug. 7 as the sentencing date. Minnesota sentencing guidelines recommend four years on the manslaughter count. He will serve his state term concurrent with his 3 1/2-year federal sentence.
The agreement between the prosecution and defense specified that if the judge convicted Thao of aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter, the state would drop a more serious aiding and abetting second-degree murder count with a presumptive sentence of 12 1/2 years.
Cahill based his decision on exhibits and transcripts from Chauvin’s murder trial, which he presided over, and the federal civil rights trial of Thao, Kueng and Lane last year. Thao was specifically convicted then of depriving Floyd of his right to medical care and of failing to intervene and stop Chauvin.
Thao testified during that trial that he was relying on the other officers to care for Floyd’s medical needs while he served as “a human traffic cone” to control a group of about 15 bystanders and traffic outside a Minneapolis convenience store where Floyd had tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill.
Thao told the court that when he and Chauvin arrived, the other officers were struggling with Floyd. He said it was clear to him, as the other officers tried to put Floyd into a squad car, “that he was under the influence of some type of drugs.”
His body camera video showed he told onlookers at one point, “This is why you don’t do drugs, kids.” When an off-duty, out-of-uniform Minneapolis firefighter asked if officers had checked Floyd’s pulse, he ordered her, “Back off!”
Thao acknowledged he heard onlookers becoming more anxious about Floyd’s condition and that he could hear Floyd saying, “I can’t breathe.” But Thao said he didn’t know there was anything seriously wrong with him even as an ambulance took him away.
The judge didn’t accept Thao’s claims of innocence.
“Thao was trained on MPD’s use of force and medical policies, which are consistent with generally accepted policing practices,” Cahill wrote. “Under those policies and practices, it was objectively unreasonable to (among other things): encourage fellow officers to engage in a dangerous prone restraint for 9 minutes and 24 seconds; encourage those officers not to use a hobble; actively assist their restraint by acting as a ‘human traffic cone’; and prevent bystanders from rendering medical aid. Thao’s actions were even more unreasonable in light of the fact that he was under a duty to intervene to stop the other officers’ excessive use of force and was trained to render medical aid.”
Thao is Hmong American, Kueng is Black and Lane is white.
“While we have now reached the end of the prosecution of Floyd’s murder, it is not behind us.” Ellison said. “There is much more that prosecutors, law-enforcement leaders, rank-and-file officers, elected officials, and community can do to bring about true justice in law enforcement and true trust and safety in all communities. To begin with, Congress must act: almost three years after his death, Congress has still not passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. That must change, now.”