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Marvin Haynes always maintained his innocence, denying any role in the deadly 2004 Minneapolis flower shop robbery that sent him away for life when he was a teenager.

After nearly two decades behind bars, he has a chance at freedom.

Haynes, now 35, successfully lobbied to plead his case before a Hennepin County district judge, and he took the stand Tuesday. Dressed in an orange jail jumpsuit, Haynes described how he'd slept until around 3 p.m. — rousing only to bicker with his older sister — the day 55-year-old shop clerk Randy Sherer was killed inside his family business.

In his initial police interview, detectives falsely asserted that they'd found fingerprints, DNA and surveillance footage linking Haynes to the crime scene. He recalled rebuffing the accusation, thinking "it's impossible.'"

"I wasn't there," Haynes insisted before a courtroom packed with supporters. "I'm innocent, 100 percent."

In fact, no physical evidence tied Haynes to the north Minneapolis flower shop or Sherer's killing. Haynes, then 16, did not match the physical description eyewitnesses provided to investigators. And several individuals who testified at his trial have since signed affidavits recanting their statements.

The Great North Innocence Project submitted Haynes' case to the Minnesota Attorney General's Office Conviction Review Unit last year. During a two-day evidentiary hearing this week, his defense team argued that Haynes was wrongfully convicted based on faulty eyewitness identification and improper police lineups — conducted in a way that unsettled even the lead detective.

"Based on all this evidence, we are confident that... the court will have ample basis to conclude that Mr. Haynes' conviction is legally and factually defective and should therefore be vacated," Innocence Project attorney Andrew Markquart said during brief opening remarks before Judge William Koch.

The road to an exoneration is an uphill climb for the defense, which faces resistance from current and former members of the Hennepin County Attorney's Office. Former prosecutor Mike Furnstahl told the Star Tribune in March that he stands by the conviction and is "110 percent confident" in Haynes' guilt. He cited key testimony by several teenagers, including Haynes' own cousin, who reported Haynes making incriminating statements before and after the murder.

On Monday, Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Anna Light reminded the court that a jury found Haynes guilty of first-degree murder in 2005 after a thorough examination of the evidence.

"That determination of guilt cannot be set aside lightly," she said.

Scant evidence

On May 16, 2004, siblings Sherer and Cynthia McDermid were working at Jerry's Flower Shop at North 33rd and Lyndale avenues when a young man walked in saying he wanted flowers for his mother's birthday. McDermid began to prepare a bouquet.

Soon she was staring up into the barrel of a silver revolver. The man barked orders demanding money and the security tapes. Sherer emerged from the back, saying there was no money to take. When the robber aimed the gun at her brother, McDermid fled. Two gunshots rang out.

McDermid — the sole eyewitness to the crime — described the shooter to police as a 19- to 22-year-old Black male, thin build, medium or dark-skinned, nearly 6 feet tall, 180 pounds, with "close-cropped" hair. There was no forensic evidence from the scene, no video surveillance or viable fingerprints. The weapon was never found.

Police showed McDermid an initial photo lineup that didn't include Haynes. With 75% to 80% certainty, she chose a man who matched her description but had an alibi.

Two days after the murder, then-Minneapolis police Sgt. Michael Keefe received an anonymous tip that the shooter was "Little Marvin."

Police soon arrested 16-year-old Haynes for missing a court appearance for violating curfew. His booking photo shows him with a long afro and thin mustache. He was 5 feet 7 inches tall and 130 pounds.

Investigators presented McDermid with another photo lineup. Instead of using Haynes' mugshot with the longer hair taken hours earlier, they substituted a two-year-old photo of him with short, close-cropped hair. She ultimately pinned him as the shooter.

Detectives then arranged an in-person lineup, where five young men — different from those in the photo lineup — acted as fillers. Haynes was the only person in both.

Both McDermid and a local middle schooler, who claimed to have seen a slender Black male flee from the flower shop following a gunshot that day, each chose Haynes, with varying degrees of confidence.

But the way MPD conducted the suspect lineups violated longstanding best practices by repeatedly exposing witnesses to the same person and by using an out-of-date mugshot of Haynes, said Nancy Steblay, a retired professor emeritus of psychology at Augsburg University.

"These are very poor lineups," Steblay testified Monday. "And the elements are such that this suggests high risk for identification error, extremely high risk."

The fact that McDermid initially picked an innocent person — whose physical appearance greatly differed from Haynes — also cast doubt on her reliability as a witness, said Steblay, who was commissioned to review Haynes' case for the Innocence Project.

Memory is malleable, Steblay wrote in her report, with mistaken eyewitness identification faulted for nearly 80% of wrongful convictions in the first 200 cases overturned by DNA evidence.

Keefe, one of the original detectives on the case, also testified Monday that presenting Haynes to the eyewitnesses multiple times was "reckless and irresponsible."

He recalled that, when a supervisor ordered him to conduct a second lineup with Haynes as the main suspect, he thought it was a joke and questioned its legality. Despite a contentious debate with command staff, Keefe was overruled; senior Hennepin County attorneys approved the procedure.

In his experience, eyewitnesses who are confident about their suspect identification often slam their fingers down on the perpetrators' image and say "this is the guy!" Keefe testified. "Cynthia just couldn't do that."

McDermid died in 2020.

He testified that Haynes' family was unable to provide an alibi for him under police questioning.

Yet doubts about Haynes' guilt lingered for years, even after Keefe's retirement. Under questioning from the defense, Keefe noted that Haynes' case is the only one among hundreds he'd worked to secure convictions on that left him feeling unsettled.

Contested alibi

During the 2005 trial, prosecutors relied on testimony from several minors who claimed to have heard Haynes bragging about the murder.

Isiah Harper, Haynes' 14-year-old cousin, initially told police that he overheard Haynes and another boy discussing a robbery sometime before driving off together the morning of the shooting. Afterward, he claimed Haynes called him to confess.

Harper has since signed an affidavit recanting his 2005 testimony, saying Minneapolis police officers threatened him with half the prison time Haynes was facing if he didn't help corroborate their theories about the case.

Repeatedly pressed about why he lied to investigators, Harper said he was "tired of being questioned' and didn't want to go to jail."

"I was afraid," said Harper, now 34 and incarcerated at Faribault prison for aiding and abetting second-degree murder. "I didn't know the law. I didn't know shit."

"After threatening me," Harper testified Tuesday, "Hell yeah, I said what they wanted me to say."

(Keefe vehemently denied attempting to coerce any witnesses during the homicide investigation, but acknowledged that officers did not seek parental consent before interrogating minors back then.)

All four of Haynes' sisters testified that he was at home asleep that Sunday morning when two of them left for church. Asked why she didn't share that crucial information with police, Cynthia Haynes replied: "They didn't ask me."

None of them recalled being interviewed by authorities following his arrest. Six days after the murder, Haynes' older sister Sharita told a Star Tribune reporter that Marvin was asleep when she left for church services about 10:30 a.m., about an hour before the killing. "I think the police have the wrong person," she said in that 2004 interview. Over the next 20 years, the family never wavered in that belief.

Koch continued the case until Dec. 20, when the final witness is scheduled to testify.

Relatives called the evidentiary hearing a "step in the right direction," but cautioned that the outcome is not guaranteed.

"We just don't know, because the same people who put my brother there wrongfully are the same folks who have to make this decision to let him out," said Haynes' sister, Marvina Haynes. "How much time does an innocent man have to serve before he has his freedom back?"

Star Tribune staff writer Susan Du contributed to this story.