Kim Hyatt, Star Tribune, September 30, 2023
Sherrice Barnett listened in disbelief as Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty explained that a teenager charged in her son’s murder would be spared prison.
“I couldn’t breathe,” Barnett recalled. “I said, ‘I just got to get up out of here.’ I never would have imagined in a million years that it would have went that way.”
She assumed the only reasonable outcome for the killing of her son Derrell Freeman, 27, was significant time behind bars — as suggested by state guidelines.
Barnett echoes a group of crime victims’ families who say they feel retraumatized by what appears to be a pattern with Moriarty’s administration. The families are told that instead of seeking prison, prosecutors want probation. Notice of the abrupt change is urgent. It comes days before a scheduled plea hearing, during which families say it sounds like the prosecutor advocates more for the defendant than them or the victim.
“It’s a trend definitely because of Mary Moriarty. She’s still playing public defender — the only thing is, that’s not her role anymore,” said Catherine Markey, a veteran attorney whose son was also gunned down and killed by teens.
Moriarty has 30 years of experience working on the other side of the courtroom defending the accused. She served as chief public defender for the county before winning election and transitioning this year to top prosecutor in Minnesota’s largest public law office.
In an interview Friday, Moriarty said her new role “is completely different and that’s clear to me.” She campaigned as a reformer focused on equity and rehabilitation, not punishment, especially for youth.
Nancy Capersen’s 25-year-old daughter Kailey died in 2021 from pain pills laced with fentanyl. The dealer, Jesse Lietzau, was charged with third-degree murder, which carries a maximum sentence of 25 years.
Prosecutors asked for probation and up to 240 days in jail. At the plea hearing last week, Lietzau admitted that he knew the pills had fentanyl in them but didn’t tell Kailey. Caspersen was in the courtroom with signs saying, “Why are drug dealers getting away with murder?”
When families object to lenient sentences, or feel wronged by the short notice of new agreements, there is little recourse for them.
Some reach out to local media or petition Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison to take over prosecution of the case. That’s what happened with Zaria McKeever’s murder.
Her family sounded the alarm over the abrupt change for two teenage brothers accused of killing McKeever during a home invasion last November. Prosecutors initially wanted the teens to stand trial for murder as adults. But, in exchange for their testimony against the man accused of orchestrating the attack, Moriarty offered them probationary plea deals. A prosecutor voluntarily removed herself from the case in protest, then left the office.
The older brother accepted the offer, while the younger brother — and alleged gunman — had his case intercepted by Ellison, and it’s still pending.
Moriarty said Ellison’s interference set a dangerous precedent. Other families have asked for similar treatment.
“[Moriarty] is fumbling another case yet again and again and again,” McKeever’s sister Tiffynie Epps said. “Something needs to happen. … It’s not about it going our way. It’s about going the right way.”
The family of Stephen Markey, shot to death by a pair of teenagers during a 2019 carjacking, blasted Moriarty for a last-minute probationary plea for one of the teens after the other got nearly 22 years in prison. They pleaded with Ellison to take the case.
But Ellison announced last week that he wouldn’t intervene, saying elected county attorneys are accountable to voters for their decisions.
Catherine Markey filed a complaint with Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Crime Victim Justice Unit.
She said she’s not a fan of prisons, but she’s terrified about murder cases resulting in probation, and frequently without due notice to families.