ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — A federal judge has sentenced former Minneapolis police officer Tou Thao to 3 1/2 years in federal prison and his onetime colleague J. Alexander Kueng to three years for their roles in the murder of George Floyd.
U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson in St. Paul imposed the sentences after a lengthy Wednesday morning hearing. The pair, each convicted of two counts of violating Floyd’s civil rights, are expected to serve their sentences in minimum-security federal prison camps, either in Duluth, Minnesota, or Yankton, South Dakota. Each was convicted in February of failing to intervene when fellow officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes on Memorial Day 2020 and of failing to provide medical aid to Floyd before or after the incident.
Thao, an eight-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department, was partnered with Chauvin on May 25, 2020, when the pair went to assist Kueng and his partner, Thomas Lane, with Floyd’s arrest at Cup Foods in south Minneapolis. While Kueng, Lane and Chauvin knelt on Floyd, Thao acted as crowd control for a growing group of bystanders, many of whom pleaded with Chauvin to get off of Floyd.
Kueng had finished field training with MPD, where he was trained largely by Chauvin, just a few days before Floyd’s death. He held Floyd’s lower back and buttocks during the officers’ nearly 10-minute restraint, positioned to Chauvin’s right and Lane’s left.
Thao and Kueng are the last of the four officers to be sentenced for violations of Floyd’s civil rights. Chauvin took a plea deal in December and was sentenced to 21 years in federal prison earlier this month, while Lane was sentenced to 2 1/2 years last week. Lane, who provided CPR to Floyd after paramedics removed him from the scene, was not charged with failing to provide medical aid.
Back-to-back Wednesday morning hearings began with Kueng’s punishment and discussion of his sentencing factors.
Prosecutors argued that Kueng’s statements to his superiors after the fact that he believed Floyd was breathing demonstrated a higher degree of culpability, and noted that a jury selected from all corners of the state with a high degree of scrutiny had convicted him.
“He failed to act as the Constitution required, and he did so, willfully, as the jury found, over the course of nine minutes and 29 seconds,” prosecutor Manda Sertich said.
Kueng’s attorney, Thomas Plunkett, argued that his client’s failures were really the failures of the Minneapolis Police Department. “Mr. Kueng was the youngest and least experienced officer, both in life and police experience,” he said. “The biggest factor is the poor quality of training in the area of intervention by the city of Minneapolis.”
He noted that citizens had pushed then-Police Chief Medaria Arradondo to implement better intervention training for officers before Floyd’s death, but that Arradondo had not done so. “Now Chief Arradondo is nowhere to be found, but Mr. Kueng is before this court,” Plunkett said.
Kueng declined to speak at the hearing. Thao, however, took the opportunity to deliver a lengthy sermon, quoting Biblical passages, describing a religious awakening in the Hennepin County Jail and suggesting that prosecutors would be divinely punished for “scheming and lying.” He also quoted passages condemning homosexuality, and warned that “God told me that many people, this nation, will be tested to see who they really belong to.”
Thao made no mention of Floyd, Chauvin or the arrest that gave rise to his convictions.
Prosecutors argued for a longer sentence for Thao, pushing back against defense arguments that he had never touched Floyd and was focused on the bystanders. Not touching a victim, Sertich said, is standard in failure-to-intervene cases.
“Officers that fail to intervene are people who are present at, but not necessarily participating in, a use of force,” she said. “A person convicted of failure to intervene is almost always, and maybe always, less culpable than the user of the force.”
Sertich and fellow Assistant U.S. Attorney LeeAnn Bell also stressed that Thao knew or should have known that Floyd was in distress. Bystanders, they noted, pointed out that Floyd was not breathing, and Thao was standing in a position where he could see Floyd throughout the restraint.
They also pushed against Magnuson’s characterization of Thao as “quiet and respectful.”
Magnuson, for his part, emphasized that the court was a place of forgiveness as well as punishment. Following Thao’s sentencing, the judge paid mention to the Sermon on the Mount, telling the officer, “We are to forgive. That applies to all of us.”
Floyd’s girlfriend, Courteney Ross, and his second cousin, Subrina Montgomery, spoke on Floyd’s behalf at the sentencings. Ross stressed Kueng’s opportunity for redemption, echoing her words to Lane at his sentencing.
“However long a sentence you are given, you will still have a life ahead of you. This sentence will not define you,” Ross said. “You will be defined by how you move forward and live with the consequences.”
For Thao, she had harsher words: “Mr. Thao, as you watched my love being suffocated under the knee of your co-officer, I will never forget you saying to the crowd of onlookers ‘this is why you don’t do drugs.’” As a recovering addict and former educator, Ross said, she was disheartened to hear him tell a crowd of young people, including several minors, that drug use made Floyd’s life less important.
She spoke of Floyd’s claustrophobia, which he told officers about at the scene of his death.
“When you get scared in that small prison cell, remember how Floyd felt. Hopefully that will give you the opportunity to experience empathy. I say to you now Mr. Thao: this is why you do not violate someone’s civil rights," she said.
Ross asked for a maximum sentence for Thao, a request she did not make for Chauvin, Kueng or Lane.
Montgomery, meanwhile, sought maximum sentences for both officers. As one of Floyd’s few Minnesota-based relatives, she did not know him personally but was present for much of the trial.
“All of these officers deserve longer sentences,” Montgomery said. “Both are grown men. Both violated their oath of office. Both violated their constitutional duty to protect someone in their custody.”
Chauvin was also convicted of second- and third-degree murder and manslaughter in state court last April, though a Minnesota Supreme Court decision regarding third-degree murder has thrown his third-degree conviction into jeopardy. He was sentenced to 22 ½ years in June of 2021.
Kueng and Thao are set to go to trial in October for aiding and abetting Chauvin. Lane took a plea deal in the state-court case shortly after his federal conviction and faces sentencing in September.
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