A federal judge on Friday sided with two former Minneapolis police officers who were convicted of violating George Floyd’s civil rights, ruling that the guidelines for their sentences will be calculated in a way that could mean substantially less prison time for them.
U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson handed J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao a victory when he ruled that the complex formulas for calculating their sentences will use the crime of involuntary manslaughter, rather than murder, as a starting point. Magnuson will sentence the men in back-to-back hearings Wednesday.
Kueng, Thao and their colleague, Thomas Lane, were convicted in February of violating Floyd’s rights by depriving him of medical care as the 46-year-old Black man was pinned under then-Officer Derek Chauvin’s knee for 9 1/2 minutes while Floyd repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe.
Kueng and Thao were also convicted of failing to intervene to stop Chauvin in the killing, which was recorded on video by a bystander and sparked worldwide protests as part of a reckoning over racial injustice. While Chauvin pinned down Floyd’s neck, Kueng held Floyd’s back, Lane held his feet and Thao kept bystanders back.
Chauvin, who pleaded guilty to one count of violating Floyd’s rights, got a federal sentence of 21 years. Lane was sentenced Thursday to 2 1/2.
Prosecutors have requested that Magnuson sentence Keung and Thao to less time than Chauvin, but “substantially” more than Lane. They have not made specific recommendations. Thao’s attorney is asking his client be sentenced to two years in prison, while Kueng’s attorney has filed his request under seal.
A hearing was held Friday to address the complex formulas used to calculate a person’s “offense level,” which then is used to set a guideline range for sentencing that federal judges are not bound to follow but typically do.
All four former officers were convicted of federal civil rights violations, which carry their own offense level, but their crimes are cross-referenced with another offense – in this case murder or involuntary manslaughter – which creates the baseline for calculating a guideline sentence. Different elements are then added or subtracted to come up with a final sentencing range.
Over prosecutors’ objections, Magnuson ruled that involuntary manslaughter should be used as a starting point for Kueng and Thao.
“The facts of this case do not amount to second-degree murder under federal law,” Magnuson wrote. “Defendants Kueng and Thao each made a tragic misdiagnosis in their assessment of Mr. Floyd.” He added that both men genuinely thought Floyd was suffering from a drug overdose and “excited delirium” – a disputed condition in which someone is said to have extraordinary strength.
The result of Magnuson’s ruling means that the starting point for calculating the men’s sentence will be much lower – with a range starting as low as 2 1/4 years in prison, compared with a range starting at 19 1/2 years if the offense were to be cross-referenced with murder, according to a table of U.S. Sentencing Commission guidelines. But the calculations don’t stop there.
Magnuson also ruled that this baseline level should be increased because the officers acted under “colour of law,” bringing the guideline range to somewhere between 4 1/4 years to 5 1/4 years in prison. Still, that also might not be the final landing point, as Magnuson is expected to rule on other factors that could impact the formula next week.
Kueng, who is Black, and Thao, who is Hmong American, remain free on bond pending their sentencing. They are also charged with state counts of aiding and abetting both second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. They have turned down plea deals in that case and are scheduled to stand trial on those charges on Oct. 24.
Lane, who is white, pleaded guilty to a state charge of aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter and is still awaiting sentencing in that case. He was allowed to remain free on bond after his federal sentencing, but must report to a yet-to-be-determined federal prison in October.
Chauvin, who is white, was also convicted of second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in state court and is serving a 22 1/2-year state sentence. His federal and state sentences are being served simultaneously. Online records show he’s still at the state’s maximum security prison, but he’s expected to be moved into federal custody.
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