Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty is raging unjustly against a rare decision by Gov. Tim Walz to intervene in the murder case of Zaria McKeever, a young mother gunned down in her home, after Moriarty decided to offer a plea deal to the alleged killers, who are teenagers.
Moriarty called the state's action "undemocratic" and a "dangerous precedent," comparing fellow Democrats Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison, who will now prosecute the case, to Republicans in other states attempting to punish or even remove elected prosecutors over their decisions.
That hyperbole must be challenged. Walz's action is neither unprecedented nor undemocratic. There is a procedure in state statute for such instances, and it was followed. Ellison made the rare decision to ask the governor for authorization to take over the case. Walz, upon review, agreed.
In doing so, Walz said, "I think the frustration the [victim's] family felt and the public was feeling [caused] the attorney general to ask for the case."
Previous longtime Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman had moved to certify the two teens as adults for the heinous crime. Moriarty, just months into her new role, changed course and offered a plea deal that would keep the two in the juvenile system, likely facing no more than a couple of years in a juvenile facility.
State officials should not routinely overrule local prosecutors' decisions. Ellison told an editorial writer it should be an option of last resort — words echoed by the governor. But the circumstances here are extraordinary.
Erick Haynes, the 22-year-old father of Zaria McKeever's infant child, is alleged to have driven a 17-year-old and his 15-year-old brother to McKeever's home on Nov. 8, 2022. He allegedly gave a gun to the teens and sent them inside. The door was kicked in and the 15-year-old allegedly fired five shots, killing McKeever. Haynes has been charged with second degree murder.
Incredibly, Moriarty said of the shooter at one point that "actually pulling the trigger or not doesn't reflect on that youth's ability to be rehabilitated." McKeever's family and supporters interrupted her, asking, "What do you get for executing someone and shooting them five times?"
On March 8, Hennepin County District Judge Tanya Bransford accepted the plea deal for John Kamara, 17. Bransford said state statute compelled her to affirm a deal under which Kamara is expected to serve an 18-month to two-year sentence at Red Wing.
So light a sentence is unconscionable for so grievous an offense. Ellison said in his letter to the governor that "McKeever's family is adamantly opposed to this disposition, as is the community at large." Because of that strong opposition, Ellison said he reached out to Moriarty and offered to take over the prosecution. "That offer was refused," he wrote to Walz.
Ellison told an editorial writer he thought long and hard about taking such a rare action. "I have a lot of respect for county attorneys," he said. "But I was genuinely alarmed by the facts of this case and the disposition. I agreed with the family that this was an inappropriate course of action. I am also alarmed by the message this sends out that even for the most heinous of offenses, there would be minimal consequences.
"We are going to pursue justice for this family and for the community," Ellison said.
It is a bit shocking how little concern Moriarty appears to have for the victims. Police have said that Haynes admitted in a statement he was angry at McKeever for ending their relationship. A 23-year-old mother's life was taken in an exceptionally cruel way. Her one-year-old daughter is forever robbed of a mother's love. McKeever's family has been plunged into grief.
Little can be done about Kamara's plea deal. But there is still time to ensure that the 15-year-old, the alleged gunman, is certified as an adult and, if convicted, faces appropriate consequences.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board believes in rehabilitation, particularly for youthful offenders. But that does not excuse coldblooded, premeditated murder. What would change in two short years in the mindset of someone who would commit such a crime?
Moriarty spent nearly 30 years as a Hennepin County public defender, including years as its chief defender. By all accounts, she was a force to be reckoned with in the defense of her clients. She was often at odds with other criminal justice leaders and in 2019 was placed on indefinite suspension by the state public defender's office over allegations relating to those relationships. The dispute was resolved through a $300,000 settlement, with Moriarty agreeing to retire and not seek further work with the public defense board.
Moriarty has a different role now, a role that is the direct opposite of her previous job. She is now answerable to the voters. She is here to prosecute, not defend, to pursue justice on behalf of victims and the community at large, to help ensure public safety.
McKeever's stepfather, Paul Greer, said in a KSTP-TV report that family members harbor no "ill feelings" toward Moriarty, but they believe the attorney general is the right person to handle this case.
"When you have a prosecutor that has more sympathy for the ones who committed the crime, versus the one who got the crime committed to, it's sad; it makes a mockery of what justice is supposed to be about," Greer said.
It is fortunate that Minnesota law makes provision for extraordinary instances such as this.