By Steve Karnowski
Tou Thao, the last former Minneapolis police officer convicted in state court for his role in the killing of George Floyd, was sentenced Monday to 4 years and 9 months — even as he denied wrongdoing.
Thao had testified that he merely served as a “human traffic cone” when he held back concerned bystanders who gathered as former Officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, knelt on Floyd’s neck for 9 1/2 minutes while the Black man pleaded for his life on May 25, 2020.
A bystander video captured Floyd’s fading cries of “I can’t breathe.”
At the sentencing hearing, Thao spoke at length about his growth as a Christian during his 340 days behind bars. He said he was “distressed” by Floyd's death but denied any role in it.
“I did not commit these crimes," Thao said. "My conscience is clear. I will not be a Judas nor join a mob in self-preservation or betray my God.”
Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill responded that he was hoping “for more than preaching” from Thao. “After thee years of reflection, I was hoping for a little more remorse,” the judge said.
Thao’s attorney, Robert Paule, said afterward that they will appeal. He declined further comment.
Assistant Attorney General Erin Eldridge said during the hearing that Floyd’s final words “reverberated across the globe.”
Floyd, she said, “narrated his own death over the course of a restraint that lasted more than 9 long minutes until he lost consciousness, stopped breathing and his heart stopped beating.”
Thao, she said, “stood by and allowed it to happen” and stopped others from moving in to help the dying man.
“He knew better, and he was trained to do better,” Eldridge said.
Floyd’s killing touched off protests worldwide and forced a national reckoning of police brutality and racism.
Cahill found Thao guilty in May of aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter.
In his 177-page ruling, Cahill said Thao's actions separated Chauvin and two other former officers from the crowd, including an emergency medical technician, allowing his colleagues to continue restraining Floyd and preventing bystanders from providing medical aid.
“There is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Thao’s actions were objectively unreasonable from the perspective of a reasonable police officer, when viewed under the totality of the circumstances,” Cahill wrote.
He concluded: “Thao's actions were even more unreasonable in light of the fact that he was under a duty to intervene to stop the other officers' excessive use of force and was trained to render medical aid.”
Thao had rejected a plea bargain on the state charge, saying “it would be lying” to plead guilty when he didn't think he was in the wrong. He instead agreed to let Cahill decide the case based on evidence from Chauvin's 2021 murder trial and the federal civil rights trial in 2022 of Thao and former Officers Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng.
That trial in federal court ended in convictions for all three. Chauvin pleaded guilty to federal civil rights charges instead of going to trial a second time, while Lane and Kueng pleaded guilty to state charges of aiding and abetting manslaughter.
The sentence Cahill handed down Monday will run concurrently with Thao’s 3 1/2-year sentence on his separate conviction on a federal civil rights charge, which an appeals court upheld on Friday. His state sentence was more than the 4 years recommended under Minnesota state guidelines.
The sentence will be served at federal prison with credit for time served before Thao is transferred to a Minnesota prison to serve out the remainder.
Lane and Kueng received 3 and 3 1/2-year state sentences respectively, which they are serving concurrently with their federal sentences of 2 1/2 years and 3 years. Thao is Hmong American, while Kueng is Black and Lane is white.
Minnesota inmates generally serve two-thirds of their sentences in prison and one-third on parole. There is no parole in the federal system but inmates can shave time off their sentences with good behavior.