Kao Xiong stood, took a deep breath, and with five words, spared himself a prison sentence.
“Your Honor,” he said. “It’s my fault.”
The courtroom admission, choked through tears with a series of apologies to his wife, parents and slain 2-year-old son, Neegnco, marked the first time the Minneapolis man admitted he was responsible for the toddler’s shooting death at the hands of his 4-year-old brother with an unsecured, loaded handgun.
The result was leniency from District Judge Daniel Moreno, who sentenced Xiong to 10 years’ probation — a stark departure from the four-year prison sentence recommended after a jury found him guilty last month of felony manslaughter.
But the judge’s mercy came with a stern warning to the grieving father, who must spend his probation with lengthy community service — namely educating the Hmong community on the importance of gun safety.
“I have no doubt that you’re sorry. What I had my doubts about is your ability to understand and appreciate the gravity of the danger you placed your children in,” Moreno said. “Unfortunately for you, it took a long, grueling, graphic, tragic trial for you to understand this. I believe finally you have accepted responsibility.”
After the hearing, Xiong’s large contingent of supporters filed out of the courtroom in silent, shocked relief. The scene was in sharp contrast to a month ago, when the guilty verdicts left his mother wailing and his brother cursing the tearful Hennepin County jurors. Xiong, 31, who was also sentenced to 30 days in jail, was released Thursday afternoon, his time already served.
Given the potential for prison time, the probationary sentence was the best possible outcome, said Xiong’s attorney, Steven Meshbesher.
“It’s phenomenal. We are extraordinarily happy right now, almost to the point it’s hard to comprehend,” he said.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said that despite the prosecution’s request for four years, they were satisfied with the probation sentence once Xiong finally took responsibility for his son’s death.
“It would be fundamentally unfair for that 4-year-old to go through life thinking it was his responsibility, because it wasn’t,” Freeman said, fighting back tears. “It was Mr. Xiong’s.”
Returning to his life
Neegnco was shot in the chest on Dec. 5, 2012, by his older brother, who was playing with a loaded handgun in an upstairs bedroom while their parents were downstairs making lunch. He died at the scene.
Meshbesher had argued that the shooting was an accident, that the gun was hidden and although loaded, was not likely to be found by a 4-year-old. But the prosecution argued that Xiong was negligent for stashing the weapon between a pillow and a mattress in the master bedroom where the children played unattended. The gun was one of eight that police found in Xiong’s south Minneapolis home.
Xiong rejected plea offers from prosecutors that would have kept him out of prison, maintaining that his son’s death was an accident, not a crime. He took the case to an emotionally wrenching weeklong trial, during which Xiong sobbed as images of Neegnco’s body were displayed for the jury during a medical examiner’s testimony. In a pre-sentence investigation, a probation officer recommended the four-year sentence, citing Xiong’s apparent lack of responsibility. Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Amy Sweasy said that’s why the prosecution sided with the recommendation.
“Throughout the course of this prosecution, there has been an absence of focusing on the victims in this case,” Sweasy said.
But when given the chance to address the judge, Xiong’s tone changed.
“I failed,” he said. “I should take responsibility for the death of my baby boy. … I apologize to my son Neegnco, who lived a short life and who I love so much.”
“Please forgive me. I’m so sorry.”
As a condition of his sentence, Xiong is forbidden to own a gun again. The sentence also includes 20 days of Sentencing to Service — a community service work program — each year for five years, and 100 hours of community service. If his probation is successful, the felony conviction will be reduced to a misdemeanor. Moreno also has the option of reducing the probationary period.
Afterward, Xiong leaned on his attorney, thanked him and cried as the courtroom was cleared.
His next step is to return to his wife and four surviving children, including a newborn daughter, Meshbesher said. His job as a social worker at Goodwill has also remained open for him.
“The trauma is huge,” Meshbesher said. “He needs to get back to his family.”