They felt justice had eluded them, so a grieving family went on the offensive.
After learning that Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty would offer a juvenile plea deal rather than seek a conviction in adult court for two minors suspected of killing 23-year-old Zaria McKeever during a home invasion last fall, outraged relatives took to the street demanding that the judge reject the offer.
During an emotional court hearing Wednesday afternoon, relatives learned she wouldn't — and couldn't — do so.
Hennepin County District Judge Tanya Bransford accepted a plea agreement for 17-year-old John Kamara that would result in a 1 1⁄2- to two-year sentence at the juvenile correctional facility in Red Wing and extended probation until his 21st birthday for his role in the shooting.
"I find the law says I need to, so I am," said Bransford, noting that state statute compels her to affirm a deal when both the prosecution and defense agree to the terms. "I'm a judge and I have to follow the law."
Prosecutors originally moved to certify Kamara and his 15-year-old brother as adults so they could stand trial for second-degree murder alongside Erick Haynes, the 22-year-old man suspected of orchestrating the break-in. But last month, Moriarty's office abruptly changed course, offering the teens a chance to avoid a lengthy adult prison sentence in exchange for testifying against Haynes. Kamara took the deal.
The decision came as a shock to the victim's family, who advocated seeking the harshest possible penalty for teenagers they viewed as equally culpable in the young mother's death.
Moriarty defended the call this week, noting that she weighed a multitude of factors in the case, including the boys' age, lack of criminal record and Haynes' outsized role in the attack.
"We know that kids that age are impressionable, they are impulsive, they're easily manipulated and subjected to peer pressure," she told the Star Tribune. Her office is seeking an aggravated sentence for Haynes.
On Wednesday, at least 35 supporters packed inside the Juvenile Justice Center in downtown Minneapolis hoping to persuade Bransford to reject the plea bargain before her. Instead, they tearfully recounted the worst day of their lives through victim-impact statements.
How Haynes, McKeever's jealous ex-boyfriend and the father of her child, had refused to accept that she'd moved on. How a history of abusive behavior culminated in a plot to confront McKeever's new boyfriend. How, on Nov. 8, 2022, he gave the younger boys a firearm he'd purchased, then ordered them inside the Brooklyn Park apartment complex where, charges say, the 15-year-old shot and killed McKeever.
"It feels like a never-ending nightmare when I'm awake," said her stepfather Paul Greer, who is now tasked with raising the 1-year-old grandbaby McKeever left behind. "She cries out for her mommy every day and I fight back tears because I know one day I'm gonna have to tell her why she's never coming home."
Assistant County Attorney Morgan Kunz told the court that this case involved a domestic homicide orchestrated by an adult who manipulated the teens into participating. He asserted that placing Kamara on extended jurisdiction juvenile, or EJJ — a form of extended probation that holds a suspended adult sentence over a minor's head until age 21— was in the best "short- and long-term interest of public safety."
Kamara declined an opportunity to make a statement or address the victim's family. His public defender Kathy Cima offered comments on his behalf, noting he cooperated with the police, obeyed the rules of the juvenile detention center and was a good candidate for EJJ.
"John is very remorseful," Cima said, to scoffs from the gallery. "He didn't know Zaria would be there...And he did not intend to harm Zaria."
Kamara's 15-year-old brother was offered the same deal but hasn't formally accepted the plea.
Several relatives argued the deal failed to reflect the gravity of Kamara's crime and that the behavior is well beyond what Red Wing is capable of rehabilitating in a short amount of time.
"What kind of standard of justice do we have if this is the standard for someone who kills a person?" said McKeever's cousin, Lance Windom Sr.
Under questioning from his attorney and the judge, Kamara testified under oath that Haynes ordered him into the apartment to beat up McKeever's new boyfriend because "somebody had been putting hands on his kid."
That allegation was never included in the police news release or either criminal complaint filed against the co-defendants as a motive in this case.
Kamara also claimed that he was unaware his little brother was carrying a firearm. Court records directly conflict that account. A spokesman for the Hennepin County Attorney's Office could not explain the discrepancy in Kamara's testimony.
Upon hearing his responses, McKeever's mother leapt out of her chair and left the room saying, "I can't sit here and listen to these lies!"
When given a chance to speak before the court, Maria Greer apologized to the judge for her outburst and broke down in tears relaying all the milestones her daughter will miss with her own child. She'll never get to witness little Zenay Dior lose her first tooth or go to school.
"Sending these kids to Red Wing is an injustice," she said. "I didn't even know if I'd be able to have an open or closed casket for my daughter because she was shot in the head."
Following over an hour of testimony, Bransford concluded the hearing by explaining her rationale for approving the settlement.
The factors she would typically consider for whether to transfer a minor to adult court, like seriousness of the crime, juvenile delinquency history and culpability were balanced in this case. Although it involved "a horrific act of violence," she said Kamara has no real criminal history and did not act as the triggerman. In fact, he was also shot during the altercation.
But state law says that when both parties are in agreement that EJJ is the correct path for a teen, the court "shall accept the agreement." She felt her hands were tied.
"[Zaria] was clearly a bright star that was extinguished," Bransford told the family. "No one should have to bury their own child."
They walked out of court wiping their eyes.