Hennepin County attorney defends handling of teen murder case as family speaks out

One day after Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison removed a murder case from her, Hennepin County’s chief prosecutor, Mary Moriarty, blasted state officials for undermining her authority by making an “undemocratic” decision.

“I ran on reform,” Moriarty said in a defiant news briefing Friday afternoon at the Hennepin County Government Center. “They are stopping me from doing the job I was elected to do.”

Gov. Tim Walz agreed to appoint Ellison to the ongoing criminal case stemming from the fatal shooting of 23-year-old Zaria McKeever during a Brooklyn Park home invasion last fall. It’s a highly unusual move following backlash against a controversial plea deal offered to two teenage brothers accused of gunning down the young mother as part of a plot devised by her ex-boyfriend, Erick Haynes.

Prosecutors agreed not to seek conviction in adult court for the teenage brothers, ages 15 and 17, and spare them long prison sentences in exchange for testing against Haynes. Each boy was offered about two years at a juvenile facility in Red Wing and extended probation until their 21st birthdays — a deal that McKeever’s relatives declared as a miscarriage of justice and Ellison was later criticized as “inappropriate.”

In recent weeks, as pressure mounted from outraged relatives and community members, Moriarty held firm in her position that her office was following the science, citing research on adolescent brain development suggesting that a young person‘s mind is not fully formed until age 25, and noting that incarceration can lead to worse outcomes for teens who often leave prison as a greater threat to society.

“One of the reasons being a prosecutor is so difficult is because you have to look at a case where there’s an unimaginable harm and then decide what accountability, justice and punishment are appropriate to request. What will serve in the best interest of public safety? ” Moriarty said during her news conference.

“Every day, prosecutors in the state and around the country are committed to doing that job. At least they were, as long as they were throwing the book at everyone — even some who were innocent. Even when they threw children in prison at alarming rates, no one intervened.

“Now, when we see reform elected prosecutors, other elected officials have decided that we cannot use our discretion and make very hard decisions.”

Under intense, rapid-fire questioning from McKeever’s relatives and the media, Moriarty defended her overall approach to prosecuting juveniles, saying that the criminal justice system has long focused on doling out lengthy prison sentences — an approach that “we know very well hasn’t kept us safer.”

“We could send this 15-year-old to prison. He would get out in his early 30s,” Moriarty said.

“As he should,” interjected McKeever’s sister, Tiffynnie Epps.

“We know from research,” Moriarty continued, “he would be incredibly traumatized and come out more likely to commit violence.”

She was drowned out by shouts from members of the crowd, who accused her of setting an equally dangerous precedent by not seeking harsher penalties for a young person arrested for a murder.

“Recall her! Recall her today,” yelled Shontell Bishop, McKeever’s cousin, as Moriarty walked away.

In the 20 minutes she spoke, Moriarty maintained that she won a resounding election in Hennepin County — with Ellison’s endorsement. She emphasized that the Minnesota County Attorneys Association voted unanimously in favor of a resolution urging Ellison not to ask Walz to exercise his statutory authority to intervene in the case.

The association feared it would set a bad precedent, and Moriarty expressed that concern Friday, mincing no words that she believes Ellison and Walz had overreached.

“Their behavior is undemocratic and they found themselves in a very poor company,” she said, comparing Ellison’s and Walz’s actions to those of Republican governors in Florida and Missouri who have sought to remove duly elected progressive prosecutors from office. “I am keeping a promise; they are not.”

Ellison’s office declined to offer a response to Moriarty’s comments. When questioned about the case, Walz claimed that the decision, although rare, was not politically motivated and warranted given the seriousness of the crime.

“This is an issue about statutory authority,” he told a press pool gathered to tour flood preparation in Moorhead. “We should be able to respond and have checks and balances.”

It’s exceptionally rare for the attorney general to take a case from a county attorney without their consent. A Minnesota governor has stepped in only once in modern history — to appoint the attorney general in a Crow Wing County sexual assault case in the early 1990s.

Moriarty scheduled a news conference immediately following a court hearing for the younger boy, who was accused of firing the fatal shot. She declined to answer repeated questions about whether an adult certification study determined the teen should be prosecuted in an adult court, as the family said was the case. Moriarty said he could not say because such information is confidential due to his age.

A dozen supporters came to the Juvenile Justice Center on Friday morning in downtown Minneapolis, hoping Judge Todd Fellman might grant a continuance in the case. They said the teen’s public defender lodged a vigorous objection to Ellison’s sudden intervention in the case, calling it “a hostile takeover.”

The boy, now 16, appeared in person but did not speak. His attorney, Mike Holland, argued that the last-minute intervention was not fair to his client, who was ready to accept the offered plea deal and had a bed waiting for him at the near-capacity Red Wing juvenile correctional facility.

Journalists were not permitted in the courtroom. Juvenile proceedings for those under 16 years old at the time of their felony offenses are not open to the public. The Star Tribune generally does not identify minors that young unless they are charged as adults.

Fellman ultimately granted the prosecution’s request to delay the hearing until April 24. It’s not clear what will happen with the proposed plea deal. The boy’s older brother, 17-year-old John Kamara, already accepted that plea agreement and is serving time in Red Wing.

“[Holland said] it’s not fair to the defendant that plans have been changed,” Epps told reporters outside the hearing. “But our whole life has been changed, which is so unfair — if you haven’t noticed.”

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