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Final two officers involved in George Floyd murder sentenced for civil rights offenses

The last two officers involved in the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd were sentenced Wednesday by U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson. Officer J. Alexander Kueng was sentenced to three years in prison followed by two years of supervised release; and Officer Tou Thao was sentenced to three and a half years.

The officers involved in the murder of George Floyd: Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao (Credit: Hennepin County Sheriff's Office)

Kueng held down Floyd’s torso for several minutes while Thao obstructed bystanders from helping Floyd as Officer Derek Chauvin pinned his neck under his knee for more than nine minutes.

Floyd, handcuffed and face down on the pavement pleading that he could not breathe during that time, died from cardiac arrest as a result of the officers’ collective action. Thao was a veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department, having served since 2008, while Kueng was a rookie officer.

The sentences relate to their conviction earlier this year by a federal judge for violating Floyd’s civil rights by failing to render medical aid and failing to intervene in the killing and are less than the recommended federal sentencing guidelines, which call for 4¼ years to 5¼ years. 

Thao, 36, and Kueng, 28, still face state charges for aiding and abetting both manslaughter and murder at their trial scheduled for October 24.

During the sentencing hearing Floyd’s girlfriend Courtney Ross stated, “Mr. Thao, as you watched my love being suffocated under the knee of your co-officer, I will never forget you saying to the onlookers, ‘This is why you don't do drugs,’” referring to Tao’s words heard in the video of the killing played at the trial.

An apparently unrepentant Thao addressed the court citing Bible passages, how he was “born again” after being jailed, according to CNN, and claiming there had been “corruption” in the case, according to the New York Times. Kueng did not speak at his sentencing.

Prosecutors said at the hearing that Kueng had not tried to aid Floyd even once after he had lost consciousness and that he deserved a “serious penalty” even though he—supposedly—had not intended for Floyd to die. Prosecutors said that even a nine-year-old girl at the scene recognized Floyd was suffering and that the officers should have too. 

Floyd’s cousin Sabrina Montgomery had asked for the maximum sentence and after the sentencing stated, “All of these men deserve to serve longer sentences,” according to ABC affiliate KSTP, and that “The system these officers operated in is flawed, but again, where is their humanity?”

Ross also expressed anger at the sentencing stating, “The sentence, particularly for Tou Thao, didn’t really seem to match the crime to me.”

Assistant US Attorney Manda Sertich told Judge Magnuson that Kueng, while being a rookie cop, admitted that he was aware of his duty under department policy to intervene. “All he had to do per MPD policy was attempt to intervene ... but he didn't say a word. Not one word,” Sertich said, according to KSTP.

The sentencing was along the same lines as the sentence handed out police Officer Thomas Lane, also charged for violating Floyd’s civil rights by failing to render medical aid after Chauvin knelt on his neck. Lane, who held down Floyd’s legs, is the only one to express any concern for Floyd’s well-being, asking twice if they should roll Floyd onto his side to help ease his breathing, to which both Chauvin and Kueng rebuffed his suggestion.

Lane received a 2½-year sentence, significantly less than the maximum sentence of 5½ to 6½ years that Floyd’s family had pushed for, and was required to pay restitution to the family. Floyd’s nephew called the sentencing a “slap in the face” and that Lane “also made the decision to kill my uncle.” The plea deal made with the office of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison resulted in a recommendation that Lane serve three years in prison on state charges to be served concurrently with his federal charges, with sentencing expected in September. In contrast to these light sentences for the officers who assisted in Floyd’s murder, the federal minimum sentence for selling marijuana is five years.

Magnuson wrote, “The facts of this case do not amount to second-degree murder under federal law” in a ruling last week. “Defendants Kueng and Thao each made a tragic misdiagnosis in their assessment of Mr. Floyd,” he claimed. 

This follows Magnuson’s conduct in the trials as a whole. Magnuson attempted to paint the killing essentially as the responsibility of one man, Chauvin, and to more or less absolve his accomplices, handing out slaps on the wrists commensurate with mistakes rather than with deliberate participation in a murder. Further attempting to back up the police force, Magnuson repeated the claims of Kueng’s and Thao’s defense that attempted to justify their actions by claiming they believed Floyd was suffering a drug overdose and “excited delirium”—a controversial diagnosis sometimes characterized as a potentially fatal state of extreme agitation and delirium. Floyd was in fact going through cardiac arrest.

In contrast to the paltry sentences handed out to the officers who participated in murdering Floyd, Chauvin received 22 years in federal prison on charges of both manslaughter and second-degree murder. This was done to give the false impression that “bad apples” in the police force are responsible for killings.

This is much in the same grain as the January 6 hearings, where the Democratic Party attempts to absolve the Republican Party of its responsibility in the coup, while pinning the blame solely on Trump. Suffice it to say, in neither case does the “bad apple” theory hold water.

Just as the coup was squarely aimed at suppressing and destroying the rights of the working class and enjoys the support of the majority of the Republican Party and sections of the military-intelligence apparatus, the police work as an arm of the capitalist state in suppressing the working class through brutal violence, as shown by the officers around Floyd assisting in his demise. Police carry out summary executions on a daily basis, with an average of 1,000 people murdered every year across this country. Countless more are brutalized.

The vast majority of killings by police go unpunished, with Floyd’s case only getting attention due to the massive protests following his murder which was captured on camera by bystanders. Desperate to mitigate the impact of the exposure, the ruling class and its political establishment moved to silence protests through the prosecution of the officers involved in the killing as well as through police repression and the promotion of racialist politics.

The refusal to levy heavier sentences on Floyd’s killers, let alone to fully prosecute them, along with the continuing onslaught of killings by police both in the US and internationally such as in Spain where police massacred immigrants, demonstrate that the police and the violence they mete out with near impunity are in fact fundamental to the capitalist system. Only a mass movement of the working class for socialism can put an end to the reign of police terror against the working class and poor.