Final ex-cop sentenced in Floyd's murder, closing a chapter in the case

Tou Thao speaks during his sentencing hearing
Tou Thao speaks during his sentencing hearing in Hennepin County District Court on Aug. 7 in Minneapolis.
Leila Navidi | Star Tribune via AP

The murder of George Floyd is a part of history. It led to riots, a racial reckoning and a promise for reform. And today — more than three years later — a chapter of that history is closing.

On Monday morning, former Minneapolis Police Officer Tou Thao was the last of the four officers to be sentenced for his role in Floyd’s murder.

MPR News reporter Matt Sepic was at Thao’s sentencing — he tells MPR News host Cathy Wurzer what happened.

And the story is far from over. Yohuru Williams, founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas joins Wurzer to reflect on how we got here and what’s next.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] CATHY WURZER: The murder of George Floyd is a part of history. It led to riots, a racial reckoning, and a promise for reform. And today, more than three years later, a chapter of that history closing. This morning, former Minneapolis police officer Tou Thao was the last of the four officers to be sentenced for his role in Floyd's death.


- You are sentenced to 57 months in prison with credit for 340 days already served.


CATHY WURZER: That was Judge Peter Cahill handing down the nearly five-year sentence for second-degree aiding and abetting manslaughter. Former officers J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane were set to go to trial with Thao but took plea deals instead. King was sentenced three and a half years, Lane, three years, Derek Chauvin, 22.5 years back in 2021. All four are behind bars, serving their sentences concurrently with sentences for federal charges, too.

NPR reporter Matt Sepic was in the courtroom today for the sentencing he joins us right now. Thanks, Matt. How are you?

MATT SEPIC: Good. How are you, Cathy?

CATHY WURZER: Good. Thanks for joining us here. Thao's sentence is longer than the other officers who were also charged with aiding and abetting Floyd's murder. Why did Judge Cahill make that decision?

MATT SEPIC: Well, first, I just want to recap Thao's role in the incident. He's the one who can be seen on video, recorded both on police body cameras and, importantly, by witness Darnella Frazier, keeping Frazier and other bystanders away as they grow increasingly concerned about Floyd's safety. Kueng and Lane, the rookie officers, helped Chauvin pin Floyd to the ground. Lane was heard asking Chauvin twice if they should move Floyd to his side so he could breathe, but he rebuffs that suggestion. Just before he read that sentence, 57 months, nearly five years, Judge Cahill outlined his key reason for giving Thao a prison term that's at the top of Minnesota's sentencing guidelines.


- I think your culpability is less than Mr. Chauvin but well above Mr. King and Mr. Lane as an experienced senior officer, who was in the best position to save George Floyd.


CATHY WURZER: Matt, how much prison time did prosecutors want?

MATT SEPIC: Well, actually a little bit less than what Cahill eventually decided upon-- 51 months. The presumptive term, I should mention, for aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter-- that's the conviction in this case-- in Minnesota is 48 months, or four years. Assistant Minnesota Attorney General Erin Eldridge, who helped prosecute the four ex-officers, pointed out that, Thao, who had eight years of experience as an officer, chose not to use a restraint device known as a hobble on Floyd's legs. That would have required the approval of a Sergeant but could have allowed Chauvin and the two rookie officers to move Floyd to a safer position. Here's what assistant attorney general Eldridge had to say this morning.


- Defendant Thao abandoned his training and provided no aid to George Floyd, even after George Floyd was unresponsive, unconscious, and pulseless. He knew better, and he was trained to do better.


CATHY WURZER: Did Tou Thao have anything to say before he was sentenced?

MATT SEPIC: Yes. Defendants have what's known as a right of elocution, where they can say, really, whatever they want before the judge passes sentence. Thao spoke for 23 minutes, and he spent most of that time quoting from the Bible. Thao compared his situation to the suffering of Job. He also went on at length about the trials of Jesus before his crucifixion. Here is what Tou Thao had to say.


- The scripture tells us that it is not good to go against your conscience. And despite what this court has ruled, I know we cannot hide our thoughts or intent from God, for we must give an account on the day we appear before God. Therefore, I must obey. You hold on to the truth I did not commit these crimes. My conscience is clear.


MATT SEPIC: Now, Cathy, Judge Cahill responded to that by saying he'd hoped to hear Thao express remorse, regret, and some acknowledgment of responsibility and, quote, "less preaching". Thao made a similar statement a year ago at his sentencing on federal civil rights charges.

CATHY WURZER: When do we know-- when will Tou Thao get out of prison, ultimately?

MATT SEPIC: Well, I did a kind of "back of the napkin" calculation. His sentences, we mentioned, here in Minnesota is 57 months. He is serving that concurrently with his federal sentence. Now, the Federal Bureau of Prisons says he's due to complete that prison term, two years from now, in August of 2025.

Now, with the 2/3 rule in Minnesota-- that means people sentenced for most crimes serve 2/3 of their term behind bars with the rest on supervised release-- minus the 11 months he's already been in jail, Thao should complete his state sentence about 27 months from now. That'll be a little bit longer so late 2025. By my calculation-- November of 2025. So about three months after he's done serving his federal sentence, he'll finish up with the state sentence. And it's expected that he'll serve that entire time in federal prison.

CATHY WURZER: OK. So this is the last sentencing of the officers involved in Floyd's murder. Does this mean that the case is completely over now?

MATT SEPIC: Not quite. I asked Bob Paule, Thao's defense attorney, if they plan to appeal. Paule said they will. It's worth mentioning, Cathy, that the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals just this past Friday rejected Thao's appeal on his federal civil rights convictions. Chauvin, by the way, is attempting to appeal his state murder conviction to the US Supreme Court, but he faces long odds getting the justices to take up his case. And because of his plea deal in the federal case, Chauvin is not allowed to appeal the charges, the Civil Rights charges, in the federal case. Now, unless an appeals court finds a major error on the part of Judge Cahill or the federal judge who presided over the civil rights trial, this is really the end of the road for the criminal trials related to the murder of George Floyd.

CATHY WURZER: All right. And quickly, have you heard anything from the Floyd family?

MATT SEPIC: No. They were not in court today, Cathy. We did reach out to their attorney, Benjamin Crump, and a Floyd family member. We expect that they might have a statement, but, as you know, they've been through quite a lot over these past three years. So they weren't in court. We may hear from them. We may not. We'll see.

CATHY WURZER: OK. Matt Sepic, thank you.

MATT SEPIC: You're welcome.

CATHY WURZER: That's MPR's Matt Sepic. Well, this story is far from over. Yohuru Williams, distinguished university chair professor of history and founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas, joins us right now to reflect on how we got here and what's next. Professor, it's always a pleasure. Thank you.

YOHURU WILLIAMS: Thank you for having me.

CATHY WURZER: There was no standard jury trial for Tou Thao. It's been, as I mentioned with Matt Sepic, more than three years since George Floyd's death. How do you feel now that this part of the process is over?

YOHURU WILLIAMS: Well, it feels a little anticlimactic, and I think that might be true for most Minnesotans, given the fact that there was so much conversation beyond Tou Thao, and Derek Chauvin, and Kueng, and Lane about police reform in Minneapolis in particular. So with so much conversation around the consent decree coming down from the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, and the consent decree coming down from the feds, and a new chief, and a new commissioner of public safety, the trials themselves seem to be in the background.

And I think, for most people, Derek Chauvin was the case that most Minnesotans were focused on squarely. And so Tou Thao, and Kueng, and Lane were seen as ancillary, although important. So I think that's part of the reason in this moment that, while this is significant and certainly it's the last piece of that criminal process that we anticipated in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, certainly, it doesn't seem to carry that same sense of weight that the Chauvin conviction did.

CATHY WURZER: There's a sentiment by folks in the community that what happens in the courthouse is accountability but it's not justice. We're going to play a little bit of audio here. This is what people said on the day that Derek Chauvin was found guilty back in 2021.


- The system is still designed to kill Black men. We don't need a court system to stop the brutality. We need policies to hold police accountable.


CATHY WURZER: So Professor Williams, do you feel we've made any progress toward the justice that many in the community are looking for?

YOHURU WILLIAMS: It's a tough question, Cathy, because I think, if we look at the experience of Minneapolis, in particular, or even just last week with the killing of Ricky Cobb by the state police, there's still deep concern in communities of color, specifically the African-American community, the Black community, about real reform of the police. And we're not just talking about the Minneapolis Police. We're talking about, as Nekima Levy Armstrong, the civil rights activist, mentioned at a press conference last week, police accountability in the suburbs, police accountability in St. Paul, looking holistically at the issue of policing nationally.

This trial is coming here in August at the end of a year in which we were talking about and have witnessed egregious examples of police brutality in Memphis, Tennessee and in other communities. So it's certainly a moment where we are looking at this through the lens of the murder of George Floyd. But it's bigger than that for communities of color. It is exactly what the activists stated there, this desire for more than just a conviction of an officer involved in a specific incident.

It is reimagining the criminal justice system to be more responsive to the needs of community and moving away from a model of racialized policing to public safety, where you don't find this argument that Black men, Black women, Black people feel unsafe in encounters with the criminal justice system. It is something we saw echoed in the video that was released by the state police last week in the killing of Ricky Cobb. Ricky Cobb asks a question.

I know we're talking about Tou Thao here and Derek Chauvin, but when Rickey Cobb says to the state police officer, well, if this is moved beyond a traffic violation or a tail light, where are we, then? As a community, we have to ask ourselves that larger question. Three years later, where are we with regard to reimagining public safety? And if the killings continue-- Daunte Wright, Amir Locke, Ricky Cobb-- we're still asking those questions.

CATHY WURZER: I have about a minute and a half left. You mentioned, of course, that Minneapolis has a new police chief and there are court ordered changes coming down from a state consent decree, another one on the way from the DOJ. How hopeful are you that these are steps that are going in the right direction?

YOHURU WILLIAMS: They're necessary steps, Cathy, but I worry, particularly in this moment, that we run into the desire of Americans, historically, for a tragedy with a happy ending. And so people assume that we've reached the end because we have criminal convictions in the officers directly responsible for the murder of George Floyd. And there's so much activity that seems to be taking place that you lose momentum. I worry about that loss of momentum in this moment.

This has always been bigger than Derek Chauvin and the other three officers who were involved in the murder of George Floyd. This has been about getting at real reform or reimagination of the criminal legal system and moving toward a model of criminal justice or more appropriately public safety. And so I think, in this moment in particular, what we should be focused on is what that looks like and not losing sight of the fact that we're far from the goal.

This isn't a moment of celebration. This is a moment of rededication to how we all factor into that larger conversation about how we help to reimagine public safety.

CATHY WURZER: Always a pleasure, professor. Thank you so very much for your time.

YOHURU WILLIAMS: Great to spend some time with you. Thank you.

CATHY WURZER: Likewise. Yohuru Williams is the distinguished university chair professor of history, founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of Saint Thomas.

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