Former Minneapolis police officer J. Alexander Kueng was sentenced Wednesday in a federal court to three years in prison for violating George Floyd’s civil rights during the May 2020 killing.
Kueng’s co-defendant Tou Thao was scheduled to be sentenced later Wednesday.
Kueng and Thao were convicted in February of two counts of violating Floyd’s civil rights. 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 9½ minutes. Kueng, who is Black, was sentenced to three years on each count, to be served concurrently.
The lower sentence for Kueng raises questions about whether he would consider a plea deal or risk a state court trial on Oct. 24, when he and Thao face counts of aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
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.
The U.S. federal government brought the civil rights charges against all four officers in May 2021, a month after Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter charges in state court. They were seen as an affirmation of the U.S. Justice Department’s priorities to address racial inequities in policing, a promise made by President Joe Biden before his election. And they came just a week after federal prosecutors brought hate crimes charges in the killing of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and announced two sweeping probes into policing in two states.
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, was convicted of one count and was sentenced last week to 2½ years in prison — a sentence Floyd’s brother Philonise called “insulting.”
For Kueng, prosecutors requested less time than Chauvin and “substantially” more than Lane. Kueng’s lawyer had sought two years, according to prosecutors.
Kueng and Thao got a victory last week when U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson issued rulings that affect how their federal sentences will be calculated. The rulings — particularly one that cross references their crimes with involuntary manslaughter instead of murder — meant the men headed into Wednesday’s hearings with a recommended range of 4¼ to 5¼ years. They might have faced a life sentence.
Mark Osler, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law and former federal prosecutor, said ahead of the hearings that once the men knew what their federal sentences are, they would 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, who is Hmong American, can still appeal their federal convictions. If they plead guilty in state court, any federal appeal would be moot, said Mike Brandt, a criminal defence lawyer 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.
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 22½-year state sentence. His federal and state sentences are being served simultaneously.