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The state Court of Appeals on Tuesday threw out the conviction of the man police say shot and killed Deshaun Hill Jr., the rising football star and honor roll student at North High in Minneapolis, ruling that the defendant's incriminating statements to law enforcement during a jailhouse interview were made while he was illegally detained.

Cody Fohrenkam, 31, of Minneapolis, was sentenced in March 2023 to a 38½-year term after a jury took less than an hour to convict him of second-degree murder for gunning down the 15-year-old on Feb. 9, 2022, during a chance encounter while Hill was walking home from school.

In his appeal, Fohrenkam contended that statements he made to investigators in the Carlton County jail should not have been presented during his trial, because they were made after a court ordered his release on an unrelated matter and before he was freed from custody.

"Fohrenkam made his incriminating statements during this period of continued detention, which the state never justified," the appeals panel explained in its decision to reverse the conviction and send the case back to the District Court for retrial. "Fohrenkam's statements must be suppressed as the product of an unlawful seizure."

The Hennepin County Attorney's Office released a statement Tuesday saying they were "deeply disappointed in this decision and are reviewing our options to ensure justice and accountability in this case."

"The senseless act of gun violence that took the life of Deshaun Hill devastated those who knew and loved him and everyone in the North High School community and beyond."

Chief Hennepin County Public Defender Michael Berger, whose office represented Fohrenkam during the trial, said the ruling "is directly related to his constitutional rights."

Berger also referenced witness accounts to law enforcement that implicated Fohrenkam, saying, "In criminal cases, folks believe them to be reliable, but science proves them to be unreliable."

A public defender for more than 16 years, Berger called Tuesday's reversal "a very rare occurrence in the practice of public defense."

The state has 30 days to consider an appeal of Tuesday's ruling to the state Supreme Court. In the meantime, Fohrenkam remains incarcerated. Should the case come back to District Court for retrial, Fohrenkam would be moved to the county jail, and the County Attorney's Office said it would "seek significant bail at that time."

"There's no reason for them not to retry that case," William Walker, Hill's family attorney, told the Star Tribune. The evidentiary ruling came as a shock to Hill's parents, who called Walker in a "state of disbelief" Tuesday morning, "highly distraught" by the decision.

"This is the last thing they wanted and the last thing they expected to happen," he said.

A deputy grabs hold of Cody Fohrenkam's shirt as he's walked out of the courtroom following sentencing.
A deputy grabs hold of Cody Fohrenkam's shirt as he's walked out of the courtroom following sentencing.

Shari L. Gross, Star Tribune, Star Tribune

The Appeals Court ruling outlined the circumstances of Fohrenkam's detention and questioning, while handcuffed, and the panel's reasoning for reversing the conviction.

Two days after Hill's death, investigators got a tip that Fohrenkam was a suspect, and two witnesses indicated the same to police. That same day, Carlton County officials said they had Fohrenkam in custody on an unrelated matter, and he was about to be released.

Minneapolis police investigators made the 130-mile trip to the Carlton County Sheriff's Office and questioned Fohrenkam for more than an hour after he was ordered to be let go.

Fohrenkam was read his rights against self-incrimination, then gave conflicting statements about his whereabouts when Hill was shot. The investigators arrested him as the suspect in Hill's death, and he was charged 1½ weeks later.

Leading up to his trial, Fohrenkam asked the court to throw out his statements while jailed in Carlton County for an extended period. The prosecution pushed back, saying his continued detention was simply a procedural delay.

The District Court sided with the prosecution and placed the burden on Fohrenkam to show that his continued detention was unlawful.

However, the Appeals Court pointed out, "the record ... is devoid of any evidence in support of the state's assertion that Fohrenkam was merely in the process of being released from detention, rather than being held in custody. Thus, the state has failed to satisfy its burden of showing that Fohrenkam's continued detention was lawful."

And given that Fohrenkam made incriminating statements during this unjustified detention, the ruling continued, "Fohrenkam's statements must be suppressed as the product of an unlawful seizure."

Among Fohrenkam's advocates in his appeal is the Great North Innocence Project, a nonprofit law firm that investigates potential wrongful convictions.

Hill was shot at about 12:30 p.m. at the intersection of Golden Valley Road and North Penn Avenue, near Wally's, a popular Northside convenience store. At 8:30 a.m., an assailant is shown on surveillance inside Wally's confronting Fohrenkam and punching him in the face four times before stealing his phone. That's what prosecutors said sparked Fohrenkam's hunt throughout the neighborhood for the thief.

Investigators told Fohrenkam in the jailhouse interview that Hill was executed with his back to the shooter and that he killed the teen for no reason at all other than being mad about his phone being stolen.

Fohrenkam at first told them he had been in Wisconsin with his girlfriend, then he said he was in south Minneapolis with a cousin, who testified that was untrue.

When police asked about his phone, Fohrenkam at first said it was broken. Then he snapped about the robbery, yelling about being jumped at Wally's. "I don't gangbang. I ain't with the guns," he said, but told the police that they already "got your story."

He maintained his innocence — even after the jury convicted him following a four-day trial.

Sacha Muller, a 50-year-old Minneapolis resident who served on that jury, told the Star Tribune on Tuesday that their speedy verdict was largely built on the culmination of video evidence that placed Fohrenkam at the scene of the deadly encounter. Jurors quickly and unanimously agreed upon his guilt during an initial straw poll during deliberations, Muller said, but chose to discuss it for nearly an hour out of a sense of "due process."

"It was clear that he committed the crime," Muller said, noting that the jailhouse interview carried little weight to him. He believes the case could be successfully retried without it — and probably should be given that the overturned conviction is "not a just result."

"It's a tragedy all around," Muller added. "This continues to, probably, traumatize the family."

Hill's determination to make it out of north Minneapolis, a community long dogged by poverty and crime and provide a better life for his family was highlighted in the documentary "Boys in Blue." The Showtime production gave an intimate look at his football team and coaching staff made up of police officers in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder in May 2020 at the hands of police. Work on the show began before Hill's murder, and the four-part series unknowingly foreshadowed his premature death.