George Floyd suffered as he died. That statement isn’t revelatory, because video of him expiring, slowly, between the knee of a deranged-with-power Derek Chauvin and the boiling hot Minneapolis pavement that singed his skin as he was asphyxiated is still easily viewable more than two years later.
Floyd’s torturous death is, however, contextual, a fact that no matter how distant or desensitized we get from it, can’t ever be displaced due to its severity. Plenty of violent cops kill unarmed Black men for trifling reasons but Chauvin didn’t just extinguish Floyd, he ensured that his transition was excruciating. Because of that, rightfully, Chauvin will likely spend the bulk of his remaining years in federal prison. His 22.5-year sentence for second-degree murder and concurrent 21 years on civil rights crimes were less than prosecutors wanted, but still a good, deserved long time for what he did.
Now, what about his three accomplices?
Today, the final two cops involved in Floyd’s death, J. Alexander Keung and Tou Thao, were sentenced in federal court for violating Floyd’s civil rights and failing to intervene while Chauvin killed him. Thao, who held a crowd that was pleading for him, or anyone, to stop Chauvin, at bay, got a three-year sentence. Keung, the only Black officer on the scene that day who actually helped Chauvin by holding Floyd’s legs down—even though Floyd was already cuffed and Chauvin was kneeling on his back—got 3.5 years.
The sentences are, politely, bullshit and divorced from reality. Legally speaking, federal Judge Paul A. Magnuson was within the guidelines in sentencing them. Morally, handing these two anything less than the maximum allowable penalty shows a lack of respect for Floyd’s humanity, and a void where the judge’s should be. It’s abhorrent.
Magnuson tried to justify his leniency in court, according to CNN:
In court Wednesday, the judge said that Kueng was a new officer who deferred to the authority of a “much more senior officer.” Magnuson wrote in a court filing last week that Kueng and Thao “each made a tragic misdiagnosis in their assessment” of Floyd.
“The evidence showed that Kueng genuinely thought that Mr. Floyd was suffering from excited delirium with a drug overdose, and Thao genuinely believed that the officers were dealing with a drug overdose with possible excited delirium,” he wrote.
The explanation is problematic on every level. “Excited delierium” isn’t a condition recognized by any major medical association in the country. It doesn’t exist, except as cop-speak to lull sympathetic or incurious judges and juries to let killer cops off with light punishments, if any. Three neurologists writing for the Brookings institution described it like this in 2020 : “a misappropriation of medical terminology, used by law enforcement to legitimize police brutality and to retroactively explain certain deaths occurring in police custody.”
They also pointed out the inherent racism in how the term is used, noting that the “terminology has been disproportionately applied to Black people, and has only been used in specific contexts pertaining to encounters with law enforcement.” Put another way, nobody but cops—and especially not medical doctors—think “excited delirium” is a real thing. And cops only think so when they kill Black people and face accountability for it. Whatever it means, it’s not a justification for letting two men with badges get away with helping another guy kill a civilian.
Part of a judge’s job is to understand the law, the facts and the context involving cases in their courtrooms. It took Google 0.48 seconds to turn up that Brookings Institution piece on excited delirium when I searched. Floyd died two years ago; his killers’ cases have been before Magnuson for months. That’s ample time to research and conclude that Keung can’t have genuinely thought Floyd, as he begged for his life, was suffering from a thing that’s literally not a thing. Handing Keung and Thao cupcake sentence for these two is inexcusable.
Magnuson’s reasoning that Keung deferred to Chauvin as a senior officer is at least more believable, but no less trash. Chauvin’s badge and stripes didn’t matter to him while he killed Floyd. They shouldn’t have mattered to Keung, Thao or Lane when any one of them should have stopped him, and used force if necessary. Instead, they helped him while dozens of people without police training didn’t share the “tragic misdiagnosis” about his condition. Everyone else knew George Floyd wasdying, and suffering in the process.
What Thao, Keung and Lane did, or didn’t do, was inhumane. They put racist cop rhetoric and and a killer’s seniority ahead of good judgment, the law, common sense and basic decency. They all deserve a lot more than three years in federal prison.