Penalties for Floyd ex-cops bring hard questions about responsibility

George Floyd’s family members and activists are frustrated over sentences for the ex-cops who took part in Mr. Floyd’s arrest that are shorter than federal guidelines recommend. Yet, a legal expert says even this level of legal responsibility is “groundbreaking.”

Hennepin County Sheriff's Office/AP/File
Tou Thao (left) and J. Alexander Kueng, received sentences on July 27, 2022 for their part in George Floyd's fatal arrest. Their sentences, lighter than federal guidelines recommend, signaled progress in holding police responsible to some, but disappointed many others.

Three former Minneapolis police officers went before a federal judge during the last week to be sentenced for violating George Floyd’s civil rights, and for each man, U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson handed out penalties well below what prosecutors sought and below federal guidelines.

Tou Thao, who held back concerned bystanders as Derek Chauvin knelt on Mr. Floyd’s neck, got 3 1/2 years. J. Alexander Kueng, who pinned Mr. Floyd’s back, got three. And Thomas Lane, who held Mr. Floyd’s feet and asked twice about rolling the Black man on his side, got 2 1/2.

For some Floyd family members and activists, the penalties were too small – and a bitter reminder of a justice system they say does not treat all people equally.

“Once again, our judicial system favored people that should be locked up forever,” Mr. Floyd’s uncle, Selwyn Jones, said Thursday. The officers, he said, “contributed to the most brutal, heinous killing in most of our lifetimes.”

Mr. Floyd, 46, died on May 25, 2020, after Mr. Chauvin, who is white, knelt on his neck for 9 1/2 minutes as Mr. Floyd repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe and eventually grew still. The killing, recorded by bystanders, sparked protests worldwide and a reckoning over racial injustice in policing.

Mr. Chauvin, who pleaded guilty to a federal count in which he admitted willfully depriving Mr. Floyd of his right to be free from unreasonable seizure, was sentenced to 21 years for that and for an unrelated case involving a 14-year-old boy.

Mr. Lane, Mr. Thao, and Mr. Kueng were all convicted of depriving Mr. Floyd of medical care; Mr. Kueng and Mr. Thao were also convicted on a second count of failing to intervene. When issuing sentences in cases that include multiple defendants, judges have to look at each defendant’s level of culpability and issue sentences that are proportional. Legal experts who spoke to The Associated Press did not expect any of them to receive sentences as long as Mr. Chauvin’s.

Mark Osler, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law and former federal prosecutor, called the sentences for the three “groundbreaking,” saying it’s rare for officers who don’t directly commit killings to be held accountable.

Paris Stevens, Mr. Floyd’s cousin and a co-chair of the George Floyd Global Memorial, said she didn’t think Mr. Lane, Mr. Kueng, and Mr. Thao should have gotten the same penalty as Mr. Chauvin – but the sentences they got were too low. She said police officers should be punished more harshly because of the power they hold, and said the three men could have helped Mr. Floyd, but didn’t.

“They stood by and kind of watched,” she said.

Stevens saw favoritism in Judge Magnuson’s sentences.

“I think all officers get favoritism in the court of law. Because historically that’s the way it’s played out,” she said.

At their sentencing hearings, Judge Magnuson said Mr. Lane, who is white, and Mr. Kueng, who is Black, were rookies. He called Mr. Thao, who is Hmong American, a “good police officer, father, and husband.” While he said the officers were culpable for violating Mr. Floyd’s rights, Judge Magnuson also mentioned numerous letters of support that each officer received. And during Mr. Chauvin’s sentencing, Judge Magnuson appeared to suggest that Mr. 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 the sentencing hearings on Wednesday to support Mr. Floyd’s girlfriend, took exception to Judge Magnuson’s assessment of Mr. Thao as “a good police officer, father, and husband.”

“That was irrelevant to what he did on May 25, 2020,” Ms. Garraway said.

Ayesha Bell Hardaway, who directs the Social Justice Law Center at Case Western Reserve University, said the judge “seemed to really have lost track of what occurred during those 9 minutes and 30 seconds” and what she called an “egregious” killing.

She said Mr. Floyd’s killing sparked widespread awareness of the harm that excessive force and tactics can have, but worried that the sentences will undermine momentum for police reform.

“When someone dies and we’re only talking about the potential of two years in prison, I think there’s a strong concern, a well-founded concern, that this removes the motivation for police to be more mindful of the way they choose to use force against individuals on the street,” Ms. Hardaway said.

Mr. Osler said any prison time for a police officer would likely make other officers think twice about declining to intervene.

“We should hope that it has the impact of changing behavior and prodding them to intervene when a life can be saved,” he said.

Angela Harrelson, an aunt of Mr. Floyd’s, said the judge showed favoritism when he allowed the three men to remain free pending sentencing and afterward – although that is frequently done in federal cases. Still, she celebrated the guilty verdicts as progress toward holding police accountable for their actions.

“There’s a lot of triumphs that have been made in pushing forward. We are on the right track and police officers are being held accountable,” Harrelson said. “For Black and brown people, we are dismantling the system. It is peeling away before our eyes.”

In separate proceedings in state court, Mr. Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter and was sentenced to a 22 1/2 years, which is being served at the same time as his federal sentence. Mr. Lane pleaded guilty in state court to one count of aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter and is awaiting sentencing there. Mr. Kueng and Mr. Thao face an Oct. 24 trial on charges of aiding and abetting both murder and manslaughter.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Groves reported from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Associated Press/Report for America reporter Trisha Ahmed contributed from Minneapolis.

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