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A St. Paul man was sentenced to 20 years in prison Wednesday for plowing his SUV into a crowd of protesters in Uptown in the summer of 2021, killing a young mother and injuring three others in an act that had a chilling effect on First Amendment rights, according to the judge.

Activists, family and friends of Deona Marie Knajdek, 31, filled the courtroom to read victim impact statements before the sentencing of Nicholas Kraus in Hennepin County District Court. Kraus, 36, pleaded guilty to second-degree unintentional murder and second-degree assault with a dangerous weapon for the June 13, 2021, crash when he slammed into the group protesting the killing of Winston Boogie Smith Jr. by members of a U.S. Marshals task force.

Deb Kenney, Knajdek's mother, said her granddaughters, Jaidyn and Adalynn Diem, are doing OK despite the tragic circumstances of losing their mom. She said holidays will never be the same because Knajdek "brought it all together."

"Deona cared for others more than she cared for herself. Deona laughed hard and loved even harder," Kenney told Judge Paul Scoggin in her victim impact statement.

Addressing the court, Kraus told Scoggin that he deserved the harshest sentence under the law and that he should've been the one who died in the crash.

"It should've been me," he said repeatedly.

Kraus said his actions that night were not politically motivated. He said he supported what protesters were fighting for, and said he didn't intend to kill anyone when he made the decision to get behind the wheel after using drugs and drinking. He said he was "not in my right mind."

Scoggin said the sentencing considered the collateral consequences of Kraus' actions.

"As a judge I can't take sides in the controversies of the day. But I can certainly recognize that this sort of act chills the expression on the issues of the day that are entitled to protection under the First Amendment," he said.

Though he said little can be said to bring any solace to Knajdek's family, friends and "comrades in the cause," Scoggin offered his sympathies. "All I can say is I'm sorry."

Deona Marie Knajdek
Deona Marie Knajdek

Knajdek was killed days away from her 32nd birthday and first anniversary of sobriety from drugs and alcohol. She worked as a program manager for Cottages Group, a Twin Cities-based home health care provider for vulnerable adults, and dedicated herself to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Her brother, Garrett Knajdek, said while fighting back tears that his sister was ripped from this world she tried to find "creative ways to save."

"My sister was not perfect, but she was perfectly flawed," he said. "She changed minds, she changed hearts. Life will never be the same."

Kenney said her daughter was "a caregiver, not a taker," a gifted painter who made elaborate Halloween costumes. She was clumsy: "Name one person you know that can slip on a piece of pizza on a garage floor and break their arm and get a black eye," Kenney said. She used every genre of music to express herself and tell her story that could fill a novel series. Her daughter knew one day she would be on the cover of Rolling Stone, she said.

"She didn't make it to the cover, but her story was told inside on the pages," Kenney said.

The deadly attack inflamed protests over the fatal shooting of Smith. For 10 days, Knajdek and other activists occupied W. Lake Street and S. Girard Avenue, the intersection where Smith was killed June 3 atop a parking ramp. They named the intersection Wince-Marie Way in honor of Smith and Knajdek, with a memorial site and community garden.

Knajdek's vehicle was part of the barricade the night Kraus said he tried to vault his vehicle over the crowd. Activists apprehended Kraus, who appeared intoxicated and claimed to be Jesus Christ.

When he accelerated into demonstrators, he was unlicensed and hasn't been since 2013, when the state deemed him a danger to public safety. Kraus has five drunken-driving convictions.

Protester Paul DeMaris said in his victim impact statement that he held Knajdek's head while she was bleeding, but that blood is on Kraus' hands. He said he is haunted by the trauma and "what ifs."

"I was hit by the car and lived. ... I live with the guilt that I survived and Deona Marie's promising life was cut short."

Nicholas Kraus at his sentencing Wednesday.
Nicholas Kraus at his sentencing Wednesday.

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Prosecutor Dan Allard said this is not a usual murder case because it's much more tragic and avoidable. "A completely innocent victim who was doing absolutely nothing wrong and did not deserve to be killed," he said.

Kraus wiped away tears during the impact statements. When Scoggin gave him the opportunity to speak, Kraus said he didn't prepare or rehearse any statement, but shared his struggles with addiction and how he is now making better choices.

"None of that really matters," he said. "What matters is that justice is served."

Kenney said being a "daughterless momma" is overwhelming. Knajdek will not be there to support her own daughters through boy trouble, graduation, marriage and the birth of their children. Instead, they search for signs of her in butterflies and cardinals, and keep her cremated ashes nearby as her family gathers for the holidays.

"I have always had my daughter on a pedestal figuratively," Kenney said. "However, today my daughter is on a mantel literally."