ST PAUL, Minn. — Editor's note: The attached video originally aired on July 21, 2022
Former MPD officers J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao were sentenced to federal prison Wednesday for failing to help George Floyd as he died under the knee of Derek Chauvin.
Kueng received 36 months for violating Floyd's civil rights by not rendering medical aid and by not stopping Chauvin from kneeling on Floyd's neck for 9 and 1/2 minutes.
Thao, who was sentenced in a separate hearing, received a 42 month sentence. Judge Paul Magnuson said in court that Thao was more experienced than either Kueng or Lane and should have known to intervene.
Both Kueng and Thao were ordered to surrender on Oct. 4 and will serve their time at federal facilities in either Duluth or Yankton, South Dakota.
“All four officers involved in the tragic death of George Floyd have now been convicted in federal court, sentenced to prison, and held accountable for their crimes,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in a statement. “George Floyd’s death could have been prevented if these defendants had carried out their affirmative duty to intervene to stop another officer’s use of deadly force."
KARE 11's Lou Raguse was in the courtroom for the sentencings. He listened as Floyd's girlfriend Courteney Ross and Floyd's cousin Subrina Montgomery delivered victim impact statements.
"Floyd was the love of my life. We have all heard the saying that if we don’t stand for something we will fall for anything. You fell hard… but this doesn’t mean you can’t find your footing for the future," Ross said, speaking directly to the former officer. "No matter how long the sentence you are given, you still have a life ahead of you."
Montgomery addressed Judge Paul Magnuson, admonishing him for what Floyd's family felt was a light sentence handed down to former MPD officer Thomas Lane. "I feel that you, Judge Magnuson were sympathetic to Lane because he was a rookie. This was their (Kueng and Lane) second and third day on job, but not second or third day on earth. Where was their humanity?"
Kueng himself chose not to speak. Along with the three year prison sentence he will serve two years of supervised release and not be allowed to possess firearms.
According to Raguse, Thao spoke for about 20 minutes before receiving his sentence. During his statement, Thao cited verses from the Bible but did not apologize to Floyd's family.
Federal prosecutor Manda Sertich argued that Kueng deserved a sentence higher than the recommended five to six years, but Judge Magnuson said a “two level reduction” in sentencing guideline calculation was appropriate.
Sentences for the former officers could set in motion another round of plea deal discussions in state court over a killing that sparked a reckoning on racial injustice.
Kueng and Thao were convicted in February on two counts of violating Floyd's civil rights when he was murdered in Minneapolis in 2020. 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 while Floyd gasped for air.
Kueng held Floyd’s back, former Officer Thomas Lane held his feet and Thao kept back bystanders, some of whom recorded video that led to worldwide protests.
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 and performed CPR while Floyd was in an ambulance, was convicted of one count and was sentenced to 2 1/2 years.
Kueng and Thao received a victory last week when U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson issued rulings that affect how their federal sentences will be calculated and could mean far less prison time. The rulings — particularly one that cross-references their crimes with involuntary manslaughter instead of murder — mean the men head into Wednesday's hearing with a recommended range of 4 1/4 years to 5 1/4 years. They might have faced a life sentence.
“It made a huge difference,” Mark Osler, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law and former federal prosecutor, said. “The impact of it is already baked in now.”
Osler said one key is if Magnuson determines that Kueng and Thao were “minor” or “minimal” participants in the crime. Magnuson found Lane was a minimal participant, resulting in a lower sentence. Osler said a minor participant would be more culpable.
“You have one officer who at least made some effort to change the trajectory, and that's Lane. You have one most directly involved in the killing of George Floyd, and that’s Derek Chauvin — and then you have these two in the middle,” Osler said.
The potential for lower sentences for Kueng and Thao raises questions about whether they will consider a plea deal or risk trial Oct. 24 in state court, where they face counts of aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Osler said once the men know what their federal sentence is, they will 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.
Kueng, who is Black, and Thao, who is Hmong American, likely will remain free on bond after Wednesday sentencing and be allowed to self-report to prison, especially since they have a pending trial and will need to be in contact with their attorneys and be present for court proceedings.
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 convicted of second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in state court and is serving a 22 1/2-year state sentence. His federal and state sentences are being served simultaneously.
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