The last two former Minneapolis police officers who were convicted of violating George Floyd’s civil rights during his May 2020 killing were sentenced Wednesday in federal court to three and 3 1/2 years — penalties that a judge said reflected their level of culpability in a case that sparked worldwide protests as part of a reckoning over racial injustice.
J. Alexander Kueng was sentenced to three years and Tao Thao got 3 1/2 years. They were convicted in February of two counts of violating Floyd’s civil rights. The jury found they deprived the 46-year-old Black man of medical care and failed to stop Derek Chauvin as he knelt on Floyd’s neck for 9 1/2 minutes.
As Chauvin pinned Floyd’s neck, Kueng held Floyd’s back, Officer Thomas Lane held his feet and Thao kept bystanders back during the killing, which was recorded by bystanders.
The federal government brought the civil rights charges against all four officers in May 2021, a month after Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter in state court. They were seen as an affirmation of the Justice Department’s priorities to address racial inequities in policing, a promise made by President Joe Biden before his election. And they came just a week after federal prosecutors brought hate crimes charges in the killing of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and announced two sweeping probes into policing in two states.
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Kueng and Thao were convicted in February of two counts of violating Floyd’s civil rights. The jury found they deprived the 46-year-old Black man of medical care and failed to stop Chauvin. Kueng, who is Black, was sentenced to three years on each count, to be served concurrently. Thao, who is Hmong American, was due to be sentenced later Wednesday.
The lower sentence for Kueng and Thao raise questions about whether he would consider a plea deal or risk a state court trial on Oct. 24, when they face counts of aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Chauvin, who pleaded guilty last year to violating Floyd's civil rights and the civil rights of a teenager in an unrelated case, was sentenced to 21 years in federal prison. Lane, who twice asked if Floyd should be rolled onto his side so he could breathe, was convicted of one count and was sentenced last week to 2 1/2 — a sentence Floyd's brother Philonise called “insulting.”
Kueng and Thao got a victory last week when Magnuson issued rulings that affected how their federal sentences would be calculated. The rulings — particularly one that cross-references their crimes with involuntary manslaughter instead of murder — meant the men headed into Wednesday's hearings with a recommended range of 4 1/4 years to 5 1/4 years. They might have faced a life sentence.
Mark Osler, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law and former federal prosecutor, said ahead of the hearings that Kueng and Thao would likely seek a plea deal on the state charges that won't exceed the federal sentence and will let them serve the sentences concurrently.
Kueng and Thao can still appeal their federal convictions. If they plead guilty in state court, any federal appeal would be moot, said Mike Brandt, a criminal defense attorney who has been following the case. But it's also hard to win a federal appeal, he said.
“Those are some of the calculuses they are going to have to make in terms of, `Do I go to trial and risk something worse? Do I think I have a good shot at appeal on the federal case?'" Brandt said.
Lane, who is white, pleaded guilty to a state charge of aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter and is awaiting sentencing in that case. He was allowed to remain free on bond after his federal sentencing.
Chauvin, who is white, was sentenced to a 22 1/2-year state sentence in addition to his federal sentence. Those sentences are being served simultaneously.