The Hennepin County Attorney does a bunch of stuff but here’s the aspect of the job that tends to get the most attention these days: this is the person who decides whether to file charges against the cops when they shoot someone.
Currently, the job is held by Mike Freeman, who did file charges against Mohamed Noor for shooting Justine Damond, but did not file charges against the officers who shot Jamar Clark or Thurman Blevins. His opponent is Mark Haase. More below the cut.
On the ballot:
When I think about decisions on whether to file charges when someone in Minneapolis has killed someone else in Minneapolis, and decisions from Freeman and his office that really bother me, the set of cases I point to is not actually related to police shooting, but two separate “was this self-defense? was this murder?” cases that happened in Minneapolis some years ago.
In September and October of 2011, there was a series of muggings outside the Lake Street Target. All targeted middle-aged women shopping at this Target alone around 9 or 9:30 p.m., when the Target was closing soon and there weren’t a ton of people around. This story caught my attention in part because I could have so easily been one of the victims: we were dealing with an out-of-state family emergency and I had to make a number of late-night runs to Target related to last-minute travel.
The muggings were being committed by a brother-sister team, Darren Evanovich and his sister Octavia Marberry. On October 20th, Darren Evanovich was spotted in the act of mugging (and pistol-whipping) a woman by a man who has never been named but was referred to throughout as the “Good Samaritan.” I’m going to call him Dirty Harry, because the Good Samaritan went to the aid of the victim, he didn’t track down the bandits and kill them.
Dirty Harry called 911, then followed Darren around to the back of the Target, where Darren was rifling through the victim’s purse, and said, “would you like to give that back?” Darren pointed his gun at Dirty Harry, who must have had his own gun in hand, just out of sight in his car, because he shot Darren dead on the spot.
Not only were no charges filed against Dirty Harry, his identity was kept carefully secret. Octavia Marberry was charged and convicted (and possibly their mother, too, for passing forged checks from those purses? I can’t remember). Dirty Harry’s actions were declared as self-defense. Which … sure, if you shoot someone who’s pointing a gun at you, that’s self-defense. Was that statute written to protect a vigilante who follows a criminal, gun in hand, and approach the criminal in the hopes that the criminal will be dumb enough to give them an excuse?
Honestly, I thought this was a reasonable decision on Freeman’s part. But that same year (several months earlier), CeCe McDonald had also acted in self-defense:
In a police interrogation room hours after the stabbing, CeCe had given a full confession. “I was only trying to defend myself,” CeCe sobbed. Police interviews with nearly a dozen witnesses would paint a consistent picture of the events of that night: Dean Schmitz and Molly Flaherty started the confrontation, Flaherty had triggered the fight by breaking a glass on CeCe’s face, and Schmitz had pursued CeCe when she’d tried to escape – all precisely the way CeCe recounted in her confession. But no witness had seen exactly how the stabbing had transpired. “I didn’t jab him; I didn’t force the scissors into him; he was coming after me,” CeCe insisted to detectives. “He ran into the scissors.” And yet in Hennepin County Jail, CeCe was shocked to learn she was charged with second-degree murder. She faced up to 40 years in prison.
We don’t know, because his identity was kept secret, but I think it’s pretty likely that Dirty Harry was a white man. (I’ve seen people state he was a white man with a lot of confidence so maybe we do know he was white? I mean, I think we basically know he was white, whether or not it was ever stated officially.) CeCe McDonald is a Black trans woman.
Freeman’s office charged CeCe with second-degree murder. They offered to let her plead to first-degree manslaughter and get a seven-year sentence. From the Rolling Stone article I linked above:
The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, however, presented the scenario as simply the slaying of an unarmed man by a person with a weapon – who had a legal obligation to flee the scene. Minnesota forbids the use of deadly force in self-defense if you can avoid being harmed, for example, by running away. Prosecutors speculated that what had in fact occurred between CeCe and Schmitz was the very definition of intentional, unprovoked murder. “CeCe took shears and thrust them into his heart and killed him,” says Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman. “We try to treat every case being blind to sex, sexual orientation, economic status. And it’s not being insensitive to CeCe to say this was a bar fight. The bottom line is, did her actions result in the death of another? The answer is yes.”
CeCe wound up accepting a plea deal and pleading guilty to second-degree manslaughter. From the MPR story about the plea:
“This is not a self-defense case, because if you have a weapon, you have a duty to retreat,” said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.
So on one hand, you had a man with a handgun who followed someone, initiated contact, and then shot them dead. Totally fine and self-defense! And on the other hand you had a trans woman who was assaulted with broken glass and slashed across the face, broke away and left the scene, was followed and defended herself with an improvised weapon — she had a duty to retreat and it’s not self-defense. (And apparently the scissors were a weapon but the broken glass wasn’t, since Freeman emphasized the guy she stabbed was unarmed and CeCe should have known this.)
I don’t know how the hell anyone in Freeman’s office defends this. I really don’t.
Other issues with Freeman’s office: please see this extensive Star Tribune series about rape cases not being pursued even when there are reams of evidence. And in this interesting MinnPost piece about this year’s County Attorney race, Freeman rather defensively says “it’s not my prosecutors who are shooting people” and goes on to say:
“‘Justice for Jamar’ translates to ‘charge the white cop,’ ” he said. “But if you or anyone else read the whole file, you realize that the very high standards for you to charge cops was not met because Jamar Clark had his hand on the cop’s gun.”
According to the cops, Jamar Clark had his hand on the cop’s gun. According to multiple bystanders, he did not. And that, IMO, gets at the heart of what many of us are objecting to about Freeman’s approach to these cases: he approaches it from the standpoint of, “if a cop says something is so, then obviously I will believe it, unless there is video evidence to the contrary.” It’s not as if “one person says X, the other person says Y, and if X is true there’s a crime here and if Y is true there isn’t” is a new and difficult problem in a County Attorney’s office.
When I sat on a jury in 2016, I was told that we were there to decide the facts of the case. To decide, based on the testimony given and evidence presented, what had happened, and whether the crimes we were handed printed definitions of had taken place. We were also asked explicitly and specifically whether we would treat the testimony of police officers the same as we would treat any other testimony — neither discarding it out of hand, nor treating it as more-true than anything else we heard. It’s that second piece where I think the County Attorney’s office has failed, and continues to fail.
(The jury I served on involved a domestic violence case and the police who testified were basically there to read their reports into the court record.)
Mark Haase is pushing for several changes that I strongly support:
- He wants to end cash bail, unless there’s an actual flight risk or public safety risk. (How big of an issue is cash bail in Minnesota and why should you care about it? Here’s a page talking about it.)
- He wants to prioritize sexual violence cases.
- He also wants to stop prosecuting marijuana cases. (To give Freeman some credit, he pushed back on marijuana prosecutions some time ago and says they aggressively offer diversion to people who’ve been arrested for drug crimes.)
- He wants a police-charging advisory board. I have mixed feelings on that one; one thing I actually appreciate about Freeman is that he has made it clear that he’s making the call himself rather than handing it off to a Grand Jury and pretending he has nothing to do with the results. Honestly, it probably depends on who’s on the board. It might work out poorly but it seems like it’s at least worth trying, and his goal here, to rebuilt trust, is a good one. (Freeman’s take was that other people were the problem, not his office.)
- He wants to establish a Conviction Integrity unit.
That last one is so important. A friend of a friend who works on the Innocence Project sent out an e-mail endorsing Mark Haase:
I don’t usually send out an email like this, but for me this is both personal and professional. Two years ago our innocent client, Billy Glaze, died in prison while the Hennepin County Attorney’s office let the true perpetrator of the crimes for which he was incarcerated remain free. This man whose DNA was found at two crime scenes is also a known rapist and remains free to this day because the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office would not admit its mistake. I have another client in whose case the County Attorney’s Office, run by Mike Freeman, is refusing the release of a cell phone the could prove my client is innocent. They say they need to keep the phone because they are still investigating the case. This is a lie. My client has been incarcerated nearly 10 years and there’s been no investigation since his conviction.
Mark Hasse says he will start a Conviction Integrity Unit in Hennepin County. With over 2200 exonerations in this country, Conviction Integrity Units have been started in several major cities all over the country. These units work with potentially innocent people who are in prison to reinvestigate their cases. A number of innocent people have been released through their work. These units have more access to investigative tools and more power than an Innocence Project ever will. I do not see such a unit being put in place by Mike Freeman, but I believe it will be by Mark Hasse. This will lead to the release of more innocent people who are wrongfully incarcerated.
(I’d never heard of Billy Glaze. He was convicted as a serial killer in 1987, but DNA evidence cast a lot of doubt on the conviction. Mike Freeman was not the County Prosecutor in 1987 — he first held the job in 1990, if I parsed the Wikipedia page correctly.)
Anyway, I am really impressed by Mark Haase and he has my enthusiastic endorsement.