Three former Minneapolis police officers appeared before a federal judge in the past week to be sentenced for violating the civil rights of George Floyd, and for each man, U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson imposed penalties well below that that prosecutors were looking for and below federal guidelines.
Tou Thao, who restrained worried passers-by as Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck, was given 3½ years. J. Alexander Kueng, who pinned Floyd’s back, got three. And Thomas Lane, who held Floyd’s feet and twice asked to roll the black man to the side, got 2 1/2.
For some Floyd family members and activists, the sentences were too low – and a bitter reminder of a justice system they say doesn’t treat everyone the same.
“Once again, our justice system has favored people who should be locked up forever,” Floyd’s uncle Selwyn Jones said Thursday. The officers, he said, “contributed to the most brutal and heinous murder in most of our lifetime”.
Floyd, 46, died on May 25, 2020, after Chauvin, who is white, knelt on his neck for 9½ minutes as Floyd repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe and s finally stopped. The killing, recorded by bystanders, sparked protests around the world and a call to action for racial injustice in policing.
Chauvin, who pleaded guilty to a federal charge in which he admitted to willfully depriving Floyd of his right to be free from wrongful seizure, was sentenced to 21 years for it and an unrelated case involving a boy 14 years old.
Lane, Thao, and Kueng were all convicted of depriving Floyd of medical care; Kueng and Thao were also convicted on a second count of failure to intervene. When handing down sentences in cases involving multiple defendants, judges must consider the level of guilt of each defendant and hand down proportionate sentences. Legal experts who spoke to The Associated Press did not expect any of them to receive sentences as long as Chauvin’s.
Mark Osler, a University of St. Thomas Law School professor and former federal prosecutor, called the sentences of the three “groundbreaking,” saying it’s rare for officers who don’t directly commit murder to be held responsible.
Paris Stevens, Floyd’s cousin and co-chair of the George Floyd Global Memorial, said she didn’t think Lane, Kueng and Thao should have received the same sentence as Chauvin – but the sentences they gave were too low. She said the police should be punished more harshly because of the power they wield, and said the three men could have helped Floyd, but did not.
“They just stood there and kind of watched,” she said.
Stevens saw favoritism in Magnuson’s sentences.
“I think all officers have favoritism in court. Because historically that’s how it is,” she said.
During their sentencing hearings, Magnuson said Lane, who is white, and Kueng, who is black, were rookies. He called Thao, who is Hmong American, a “good policeman, father and husband”. While he said the officers were guilty of violating Floyd’s rights, Magnuson also cited numerous letters of support each officer received. And during Chauvin’s sentencing, Magnuson seemed to suggest that Chauvin bore the most blame in the case, telling him, “You absolutely destroyed the lives of three young officers by taking command of the scene.”
Toshira Garraway, an activist who attended sentencing hearings on Wednesday in support of Floyd’s girlfriend, took issue with Magnuson’s assessment that Thao was “a good cop, father and husband.”
“It had nothing to do with what he did on May 25, 2020,” Garraway said.
Ayesha Bell Hardaway, who directs the Social Justice Law Center at Case Western Reserve University, said the judge “really seemed to have lost sight of what happened in those 9 minutes and 30 seconds” and what she called a “serious” murder.
She said Floyd’s killing sparked widespread awareness of the harm that excessive force and tactics can have, but feared the penalties could undermine the momentum of police reform.
“When someone dies and we only talk about the potential of two years in prison, I think there is a strong concern, a well-founded concern, that it takes away the motivation of the police to be more aware of the how she chooses to use force against individuals on the street,” Hardaway said.
Osler said any jail time for a police officer would likely make other officers think twice before refusing to intervene.
“We have to hope that this will have the effect of changing behavior and motivating them to intervene when a life can be saved,” he said.
Angela Harrelson, an aunt of Floyd, said the judge showed favoritism when he allowed the three men to go free pending sentencing and afterwards – although this is done frequently in federal cases. Still, she celebrated the guilty verdicts as progress toward holding police accountable for their actions.
“There are a lot of triumphs that have been achieved moving forward. We are on the right track and the police are being held accountable,” Harrelson said. “For Blacks and Browns, we’re dismantling the system. It’s unraveling before our eyes.”
In separate proceedings in state court, Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter and was sentenced to 22½ years, which is being served concurrently with his federal sentence. Lane pleaded guilty in state court to one count of aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter and is awaiting sentencing. Kueng and Thao face trial on October 24 for aiding and abetting both murder and manslaughter.
This story was first published on July 28, 2022. It was updated on July 29, 2022 to correct the spelling of Toshira Garraway’s last name.
Thickets reported in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Associated Press/Report for America reporter Trisha Ahmed contributed from Minneapolis.
Find full AP coverage of the murder of George Floyd at: https://apnews.com/hub/death-of-george-floyd
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