Sherrice Barnett listened in disbelief as Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty explained that a teenager charged in her son's murder would be spared prison.
"I couldn't breathe," Barnett recalled. "I said, 'I just got to get up out of here.' I never would have imagined in a million years that it would have went that way."
She assumed the only reasonable outcome for the killing of her son Derrell Freeman, 27, was significant time behind bars — as suggested by state guidelines.
Barnett echoes a group of crime victims' families who say they feel retraumatized by what appears to be a pattern with Moriarty's administration. The families are told that instead of seeking prison, prosecutors want probation. Notice of the abrupt change is urgent. It comes days before a scheduled plea hearing, during which families say it sounds like the prosecutor advocates more for the defendant than them or the victim.
"It's a trend definitely because of Mary Moriarty. She's still playing public defender — the only thing is, that's not her role anymore," said Catherine Markey, a veteran attorney whose son was also gunned down and killed by teens.
Moriarty has 30 years of experience working on the other side of the courtroom defending the accused. She served as chief public defender for the county before winning election and transitioning this year to top prosecutor in Minnesota's largest public law office.
In an interview Friday, Moriarty said her new role "is completely different and that's clear to me." She campaigned as a reformer focused on equity and rehabilitation, not punishment, especially for youth.
"I think it takes a lot of courage actually to act upon what you say you're going to do," she said. "I knew we would get a lot of pushback.
"But if you're truly going to make change, if you truly are about your values, and you want to have integrity, and you believe in research and look at the data, these are the right decisions and I stand by them."
With Freeman's killing, two 17-year-olds charged with murder in the north Minneapolis shooting in May are being treated very differently based on their individual histories, Moriarty said. The office is seeking adult prison for Jordan McFarland, but Monte Wise would receive up to two years of treatment at a youth detention facility and be on probation until he's 21.
She said her office looks at each case to figure out if a person is safe in the community. Accountability and public safety don't always translate to prison, she said.
"All of us have been conditioned to believe that the value that we place on a loved one's life is the length of the prison sentence that they get."
Moriarty is indicative of the progressive prosecutor movement that looks to reduce mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system, said Steve Zeidman, professor at City University of New York School of Law.
"You're seen as being overly lenient as opposed to trying to correct past wrongs," he said.
The impact of these prosecutors is limited, Zeidman said, but most apparent in individual cases where people are unhappy with the result.
Pushback comes not just from families, but sometimes within their own office or from state officials. Look to San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia for progressive prosecutors who are recalled, don't seek re-election or face impeachment.
'It's not right'
Former Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner said a large metropolitan county "in the best of times is dealing with very high volume of cases." So when a plea agreement is reached, often at the last minute, it moves quickly.
"I know it is very frustrating for a victim or victim's families to feel a lack of control over what happens," said Gaertner, who now works as a white-collar defense attorney. "Their voice is important, but ultimately it's the prosecutor's job to decide how a case should be resolved with an eye toward public safety."
Under the Minnesota Crime Victim Bill of Rights, families have a right to be notified and object to proposed pleas — though there is no mandated timeline for notification.
Parents of a 15-year-old girl who was sexually assaulted by a relative for three years said they feel tricked by the office. They went for years hearing prosecutor Raina Urton say she was seeking eight years in prison for defendant Devin Hultin. At the last minute, a new attorney was on their case telling them and the judge how Hultin should get probation. He was sentenced Sept. 13 to probation and 180 days in the workhouse.
Urton, who didn't agree with the offer, asked to be removed from the case.
"She walked away because she knows what happened was wrong," said the teen's mother, whom the Star Tribune is not naming to protect the victim's identity. "She was fighting for us. She was fighting for our daughter."
Nancy Capersen's 25-year-old daughter Kailey died in 2021 from pain pills laced with fentanyl. The dealer, Jesse Lietzau, was charged with third-degree murder, which carries a maximum sentence of 25 years.
Prosecutors asked for probation and up to 240 days in jail. At the plea hearing last week, Lietzau admitted that he knew the pills had fentanyl in them but didn't tell Kailey. Caspersen was in the courtroom with signs saying, "Why are drug dealers getting away with murder?"
"It ain't fair. It's not right. She's my only child," Caspersen said through tears while anxiously touching a necklace with her daughter's fingerprint.
"It makes me feel like she didn't matter to these people."
Emotion v. Reform
When families object to lenient sentences, or feel wronged by the short notice of new agreements, there is little recourse for them.
Some reach out to local media or petition Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison to take over prosecution of the case. That's what happened with Zaria McKeever's murder.
Her family sounded the alarm over the abrupt change for two teenage brothers accused of killing McKeever during a home invasion last November. Prosecutors initially wanted the teens to stand trial for murder as adults. But, in exchange for their testimony against the man accused of orchestrating the attack, Moriarty offered them probationary plea deals. A prosecutor voluntarily removed herself from the case in protest, then left the office.
The older brother accepted the offer, while the younger brother — and alleged gunman — had his case intercepted by Ellison, and it's still pending.
Moriarty said Ellison's interference set a dangerous precedent. Other families have asked for similar treatment.
"[Moriarty] is fumbling another case yet again and again and again," McKeever's sister Tiffynie Epps said. "Something needs to happen. ... It's not about it going our way. It's about going the right way."
The family of Steven Markey, shot to death by a pair of teenagers during a 2019 carjacking, blasted Moriarty for a last-minute probationary plea for one of the teens after the other got nearly 22 years in prison. They pleaded with Ellison to take the case.
But Ellison announced last week that he wouldn't intervene, saying elected county attorneys are accountable to voters for their decisions.
Catherine Markey filed a complaint with Minnesota Department of Public Safety's Crime Victim Justice Unit.
She said she's not a fan of prisons, but she's terrified about murder cases resulting in probation, and frequently without due notice to families.
Most of these cases originated under former County Attorney Mike Freeman when families were told the office would seek prison time.
Zeidman, the CUNY professor, said there should be better communication with families, but ultimately Moriarty shouldn't feel bound by promises made in the past administration when she was elected for embracing a different philosophy.
"That's a sea change in the office," Moriarty said. "And I understand why families are upset. I understand why some in the community are upset because we have not done a good job of having this conversation."
The system doesn't offer victims much besides punishment. Moriarty said the office lacks alternatives like restorative justice. That involves offenders participating in dialogue with victims and others affected by their actions.
"We're working towards building that out because families do deserve more," she said. "They deserve more even if a person goes to prison."