A 19-year-old pleaded guilty to murder Wednesday, a year to the day after he shot two of his peers in their chests outside a Richfield high school, killing one and critically injuring the other.
With his plea, Fernando Valdez-Alvarez of Minneapolis agreed to a presumed sentence of 23½ years for second-degree unintentional murder and first-degree intentional assault in connection to the Feb. 1, 2022, shooting outside South Education Center Academy.
Killed in the gunfire was 15-year-old Jahmari Kei'Fee Rice. On Wednesday night, his family and friends honored him with a vigil at the school, where they released balloons and lit candles in remembrance.
Valdez-Alvarez waived his right to trial, which had been slated for this month. The conviction carries a presumed sentence of 15 years and a consecutive 8½ years for the assault, which are the maximum permitted under Minnesota sentencing guidelines.
Hennepin County Judge Paul Scoggin will sentence Valdez-Alvarez on Feb. 23.
Valdez-Alvarez was originally charged with five felony counts, including three counts of second-degree intentional murder. His accomplice, Alfredo Rosario Solis, 20, of Minneapolis was acquitted of attempted murder by a Hennepin County jury in December and sentenced Jan. 3 to three years for assault.
Valdez-Alvarez admitted to Scoggin in court that he intended to cause great bodily harm but said he did not intend to kill. He also agreed to facts of the case, including that he went to his car with Solis around lunchtime and they were followed by Rice and two other students.
His attorney, James Horvath, said one of the students began to strike Solis and Valdez-Alvarez "became concerned about that" and got a firearm from his car. He said Valdez-Alvarez was acting in defense of himself and Solis when he aimed and fired at the students.
"However, at this point at entering this plea, you are waiving any claim of self-defense," he said, to which Valdez-Alvarez replied "yes."
Rice's father, Cortez Rice, expressed disappointment with the plea deal. He said he thought it would be for intentional murder..
"My son deserves so much more. Even the other kid who got shot — how can you shoot somebody in the chest and say you intended to shoot them but not kill them?" Rice said. "What do you think is going to happen when you shoot two people in the chest?"
Emails he exchanged with the Hennepin County Attorney's Office last week did not make clear that the deal would be for unintentional murder. The Star Tribune reviewed the emails sent from an office staffer who wrote that the discussions were 19½ to 25½ years for intentional murder, and "felony murder and assault 1 for (23½ years) would be our second option."
Nicholas Kimball, a spokesman for the Hennepin County Attorney's Office, said there was extensive conversations with the family, but "unfortunately there was a miscommunication about particular legal terms of art with some family members and we deeply regret that."
"But," he said, "Mr. Valdez-Alvarez ultimately admitted to intentionally shooting Jahmari with a firearm and that Jahmari died as a result of his intentional actions."
Rice was surrounded by family and friends, including Aubrey Wright, the father of Daunte Wright, who was shot and killed by Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter during a routine traffic stop in April 2021.
"I feel for him, I really do," Wright said.
February 2022 was an especially violent month for the Twin Cities, with the Minneapolis police killing of Amir Locke the day after Rice's death. Then on Feb. 9, Minneapolis North High quarterback Deshaun Hill, 15, was gunned down while walking to the bus stop from school.
Hill's killer, Cody Fohreknam, 30, was convicted of murder last week. He will be sentenced Feb. 28.
"School should be a safe sanctuary where kids can focus on learning, growing and preparing for the future," Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty said in a statement. "Mr. Valdez-Alvarez took that away from Jahmari Rice."
Rice's father called for gun reform and harsher penalties amid continued violence.
"The time is right now. Our kids our obviously not safe at school," he said. "What are we going to do about this?"