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Norman Burton lay tethered to tubes and ventilators in a St. Paul hospital on the last day of his life when he turned to his wife, his eyes pleading.

It's OK to go, Sherry Burton reassured her husband. Loved ones were waiting for him on the other side, and he would see them soon. He blinked once, his way of saying "Yes." Then he looked at the ceiling and was gone.

Burton, 60, died Nov. 7 from complications of pneumonia. But life as he knew it ended back in 2009 when four gang members beat him so savagely that he spent the last three years of his life in a nursing home, paralyzed and severely brain-damaged in what one judge called a fate possibly worse than death. All four known members of the Asian Crips pleaded guilty to first-degree assault and were sentenced to 14 to 20 years in prison, more than twice what the state recommends.

But now that Burton has died, prosecutors must determine whether they can -- or will -- reopen the cases to charge the men with homicide.

"There's no statute of limitations on homicide, but the question is, can you prosecute a person for a crime when they've already been convicted and sentenced?" Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said. "Now that the crime got worse because somebody died, can you come back again?"

He's not immediately sure, and his office won't rush to a decision considering the lengthy prison sentences the four are already serving. Still, he said, "the family deserves some additional closure."

Sherry Burton, 72, cares little whether they receive more prison time. She's focused on salvaging the remains of her own life, which she said the four convicts emotionally and financially destroyed long before her husband took his last breath.

Her retirement was ravaged by Norman's medical bills, and Social Security payments in his name stopped when he died.

She's received a total of $200 in restitution, and, other than some help with funeral expenses, appeals to the Minnesota Crime Victims Reparations Board have been fruitless. Her daughter and son-in-law have moved in to help her with her house payment.

"They did murder him, but these damn Crips took my life, too," she said. "These guys destroyed my family, and they just sit there and do their time. They don't care."

A brutal attack

Sherry and Norman Burton were recovering addicts who had become substance-abuse counselors when they met more than three decades ago. They enjoyed a long and happy marriage in which they bought a Roseville home where he helped raise her children and became "Papa" to their grandchildren.

At some point, he relapsed into cocaine addiction and on the afternoon of June 19, 2009, drove to a north Minneapolis duplex that was the home of Melissa R. Daniels, his connection to a cocaine dealer.

The gang members lived upstairs. According to court records, Burton and Daniels were arguing about money when Dethoudone Phaengsy punched him, causing the others to jump in. They kicked and stomped the defenseless Burton, bashed his head with a barbecue grill, and left. Police found him on the sidewalk, barely alive.

He spent two months in a coma and when he awoke, was largely unresponsive. In the meantime police found and charged Phaengsy, 27; Faron Monroe, 22; Angkhane Chanthapanya, 26, and Chia Yang, 27. Daniels, 29, who witnessed the attack but did not initially cooperate with police, pleaded guilty to aiding an offender in connection with a first-degree assault committed for the benefit of a gang. Her four-year prison sentence was stayed. Police and prosecutors said that, regardless of circumstances, Burton was an innocent victim of one of the most brutal beatings they'd ever seen.

Whether the four can be re-charged is a multi-tiered question, Freeman said. It must be proven that the pneumonia that killed Norman Burton is linked to the permanent injuries he sustained three years ago. Secondly, he said, the double jeopardy clause of the state and federal constitutions does not allow a defendant to be retried on the same charge following an acquittal or conviction.

Death changes the crime

Joseph Daly, emeritus professor at Hamline University School of Law, said it would be legally possible to charge Burton's attackers with a more serious count such as first-degree manslaughter or third-degree murder, although it probably would be hotly contested by the defendants' attorneys. Double jeopardy does not apply, he said, because of a new development stemming from the crime -- Burton's death.

"It becomes a different crime because it now involves a different set of facts," Daly said.

If the defendants are again prosecuted for Norman Burton's death, Sherry Burton probably won't be there. She didn't want to face them the first time and wouldn't want to this time. Despite his suffering, Norman Burton died suddenly, she said, and she's mourning him day to day.

Her days are long and empty, she said, without daily visits to the St. Paul nursing home where her husband lived. Despite persistent medical problems, she said, he slowly came back from what doctors called a "persistent vegetative state," recognizing his wife and others, then speaking and spelling words. In the final days before he grew sick, she said, he smiled and laughed, promising again and again that "I'll walk." She was optimistic that he would one day return home.

"He thought that, too," she said.

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921