On the first day of jury selection in the murder trial of a man accused of fatally shooting North High star quarterback Deshaun Hill Jr., his family's attorney said they are asking officials to investigate criminal charges against the school's principal, who accompanied some students on a walkout on the day Hill was killed.
The slain sophomore's parents were in Hennepin County District Court Tuesday morning for the second-degree murder trial of Cody Fohrenkam, 30, who is accused of shooting Hill on Feb. 9 during a chance encounter as the two brushed past each other on the sidewalk as Hill walked to a bus stop. Relatives and supporters wore buttons and T-shirts for a new memorial foundation in honor of their son, known as "D-Hill."
Hill's parents, Tuesday Sheppard and Deshaun Hill Sr., last week were paid a $500,000 settlement from the Minneapolis Public Schools in their son's death. The district said in a statement after the settlement that it denied all liability, but the family's attorney, William Walker, accuses North High Principal Mauri Friestleben of being liable for Hill's death because she joined students in a walkout that day to protest the Minneapolis police killing of Amir Locke.
Walker said he is also requesting that Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty convene a grand jury and investigate possible criminal charges against Friestleben, who allowed the walkout against advice from school officials. Hill's family contends he would not have been shot that day if school remained in session.
"We think the principal made a grave mistake and we believe it should be investigated by the appropriate authorities. ... Her job was to be a principal, not an activist. Her job was ... to guard these children, and it didn't happen," Walker said inside the Hennepin County Government Center.
Friestleben and Ellison did not respond to requests for comment. Moriarty and Minneapolis Public Schools officials declined comment.
Friestleben joined the protest that day and she told families in a letter last spring that doing so went against district protocol and she was "strongly advised" not to participate in the walkout. In May, she was put on leave — a decision that was quickly reversed after public outcry.
Walker said that Friestleben also did not notify parents of the walkout. Hill was gunned down near a bus stop by the school around noon. Walker said that Hill's parents always drove him to and from school and he never took the bus, but he was forced to because of the protest that he didn't participate in.
"Our son is not here. Our daughters don't have a brother," Sheppard said.
Walker cited potentially applicable state laws such as first-degree manslaughter, gross negligence and creating an unreasonable risk. He said that Friestleben knew students were escorted by Minneapolis police to the bus stop every day and moms voluntarily stood with kids at the bus stop until they made it onto the bus.
Further, he said that the principal had Sheppard's cellphone number and could've reached out to let her know about the protest and to pick up her son.
Some Twin Cities attorneys are skeptical that Friestleben could be held criminally liable.
Anoka-based criminal defense attorney Michael Brandt, who is unaffiliated with Hill's case, said that even if Friestleben violated school policy, "that doesn't mean a crime was committed." He said liability can't be generically applied and instead the principal would have to know that Hill was being targeted.
"As a parent, you want to make sure any justice, any person could be held accountable," Brandt said. "But there's that huge gap between what the principal chose to do and some random shooting taking place."
Minneapolis defense attorney Joe Friedberg, who is also unaffiliated with the case, said that for someone to be liable in a crime, that person needs to have reasonably foreseen the damages.
"And there is no person in this entire world who could've foreseen this as a consequence of releasing school early," he said. "There is absolutely no foreseeability to it."
Friedberg said he doesn't know the last time Hennepin County put together an investigative grand jury and "there doesn't seem to be any conceivable reason to do so" in this case.
"The shooter is the one whose fault it is," he said.
Yvonne Moore, a Minneapolis attorney for 60 years who lives on the same block where Hill was killed, said that Friestleben is beloved like Hill and has done a lot of great work for North Side schools. Like Friedberg, she believes it was wrong of the district to pay the family because it was a policy violation, not a matter of law.
"You don't bring criminal charges to a matter of policy," she said.
Fohrenkam's attorneys on Tuesday made their case for a change in venue and continuance, but District Judge Julie Allyn denied the motions. Defense attorneys Lisa Skrzeczkoski and Brooke Adams argued that "Boys in Blue," a new Showtime documentary series that stars Hill, makes it difficult to find an unbiased jury. Skrzeczkoski said the show portrays Hill in a sympathetic light and creates a prejudicial impression of Fohrenkam.
But when Allyn asked the pool of 50 potential jurors whether they have watched the show — not just heard about it — only one juror raised their hand. Prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed that any juror who watched the show would be automatically excluded.
Fohrenkam's defense intends on asking prospective jurors whether they know about the $500,000 settlement, but Allyn ruled knowledge of that is not automatic cause for exclusion.
Jury selection could take up most of this week.
Staff writer Mara Klecker contributed to this report.