MINNEAPOLIS – Tou Thao, the last former Minneapolis police officer convicted in state court for his role in the killing of George Floyd, did not show any repentance or admit any wrongdoing as he was sentenced Monday to 4 years and 9 months.
Thao had previously 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.” Floyd’s murder touched off protests worldwide and forced a national reckoning of police brutality and racism.
At his sentencing hearing, Thao said he never intended to hurt anyone that day. He spoke at length about his growth as a Christian during his 340 days behind bars but denied any responsibility for Floyd's death. In rambling remarks full of biblical references, he drew parallels with the sufferings and false accusations endured by Job and Jesus.
“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, who found Thao guilty in May of aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter, said he would have liked to have heard some kind of repentance from Thao on Monday.
“After three years of reflection, I was hoping for a little more remorse, regret, acknowledgement of some responsibility — and less preaching” he said.
Cahill then sentenced Thao to 57 months — the top end of the range recommended under state guidelines, where the standard sentence is 48 months, an even four years. The sentence was more than the 51 months that prosecutors had sought and the 41 months requested by Thao’s attorney, Robert Paule.
Thao's sentence will run concurrently with a 3 1/2-year sentence for his separate conviction on a federal civil rights charge, which an appeals court upheld on Friday. Thao will be returned to federal prison to finish that sentence before he is transferred to a Minnesota state prison to serve out the remaining few months with credit for time served.
Paule, who called Thao “a good and decent man with a family” in court, said afterward that they will appeal in both the state and federal cases. He declined further comment.
Assistant Attorney General Erin Eldridge said during the hearing that Floyd’s final words “reverberated across the globe.”
“George Floyd 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,” she said.
Thao facilitated Floyd's death, she said, because he “stood by and allowed it to happen” and stopped others from helping the dying man, including a Minneapolis firefighter who was a trained emergency medical technician and could have performed CPR on him.
“He knew better, and he was trained to do better,” Eldridge said.
The hearing, which lasted just over half an hour, reflected how the legal cases flowing from Floyd’s murder are winding down. While Floyd family members were a frequent presence during earlier proceedings, none were in the courtroom for Thao's sentencing. Eldridge told the court they wanted to grieve in private. Apart from four relatives or friends of Thao, most of the people in the courtroom were journalists.
Prosecutors left the courthouse without commenting to reporters.
In his 177-page ruling that Thao was guilty, Cahill said Thao's actions separated Chauvin and two other former officers from the crowd, 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, though he plans a long-shot appeal of his state conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court. Lane and Kueng pleaded guilty to state charges of aiding and abetting manslaughter.
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.