Category: Firm News

‘Somebody else did it’ — a rare, but powerful, criminal defense

(via TwinCities.com)

As Jeffery Trevino’s attorney questioned law enforcement officials in September about surveillance video in the case, he hinted at a theory about a grainy figure seen walking in the Mall of America parking lot.

Didn’t the person — linked on tape to the car of Kira Steger, Trevino’s slain wife — look like someone who knew the lay of the land? And didn’t Steger, who managed a mall store, confront her own shoplifters?

The judge cut him off before he could connect the dots any further, agreeing with prosecutors’ objections that the line of questioning crossed a line into speculation.

But the implication was clear: Someone else could have been responsible for Steger’s death.

Such a defense has been enshrined in popular culture, from the mysterious one-armed man of the film “The Fugitive” to an elusive braces-wearing killer on television’s “The Simpsons.”

In the trial of Roger Holland, accused of murdering his wife in Apple Valley, expected to begin this week, the defense could get a fresh airing in the courtroom.

In the quest to sow reasonable doubt in jurors’ minds, it’s one of the most basic and potent seeds a defendant can plant, lawyers and legal experts say.

“If the defense attorney can describe an alternative narrative that has some coherence and probability, that’s the defense’s best chance of winning,” said Mark Osler, a University of St. Thomas law professor.

At the most formal level, the claim that someone other than the defendant committed a crime is known as an alternative perpetrator defense. It’s a strategy in which the defense introduces concrete evidence to flesh out an explanation of why someone else was responsible.

To do so, a defendant must declare the defense before the trial so the court can determine whether there’s enough evidence — be it fingerprints, motives, testimony or other clues — to connect the alternative perpetrator to the crime. It’s similar to the burden requiring prosecutors to stick to relevant, well-grounded evidence.

“It has to go beyond just mere speculation or suspicion,” said Derik Fettig, a teaching fellow at Hamline University’s law school.

Trevino didn’t go that far. Instead, his attorney teased out the idea of a mystery assailant in cross-examination and in closing arguments, where he suggested Steger’s marijuana use put her in the path of dangerous people.

Though it didn’t work — Trevino was convicted of unintentional murder — that kind of informal use of the defense is common, Osler said.

“You see elements of it in a lot of cases,” he said. “Even when you don’t have an alternative perpetrator named, the defense can try to create doubt about who did it.”

Attorneys for Holland have filed notice that they may raise an alternative perpetrator defense in his trial, which is scheduled to start this week in Dakota County District Court.

Holland’s claim includes an alibi: He was away from home, he said, when his wife, Margorie Holland, was apparently strangled March 7.

His attorneys are asking for special jury instructions that often come with alternative perpetrator defenses. Those instructions tell jurors to weigh the evidence in light of the defendant’s overall claims of reasonable doubt, not to put the alternative perpetrator on trial.

“You need not be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the alternative perpetrator committed the offense,” the instructions say.

Prosecutors in the case oppose the instructions, saying Holland thus far “has failed to even identify anyone as an alternative perpetrator,” let alone put forth the evidence needed to tie that person to the crime.

The judge in the case is still weighing the issue.

If the defense sticks, it can offer a defendant a more focused argument than the blanket claim that anyone else could have committed the crime, said Pat Flanagan, a Hugo-based defense attorney.

“It’s more than ‘I didn’t do it,’ ” Flanagan said. “It’s ‘I didn’t do it, and here, I can show you that someone else has done it.’ ”

He said he has prepared the defense a few times but has never used it in a trial because the cases were settled for other reasons. It isn’t one he uses commonly because many cases don’t have specific evidence of an alternative perpetrator.

“You can’t just say, ‘Well, a Martian did it’ or ‘Some guy down the street did it,’ ” Flanagan said. “You have to show that that person had a reasonable connection to the crime.”

Lynn Walters, a Plymouth-based freelance and appellate attorney, said a coherent claim that someone else committed a crime can give jurors something to latch onto.

She said that can have powerful psychological benefits — especially in cases of chilling crimes, such as homicides, in which jurors may feel compelled to seek an explanation and to place blame.

“Really, what the defense is trying to do is give the jury an alternative theory, something else to believe,” Walters said. “When you have some sort of a crime where the jury really wants to point a finger at someone, they’re going to be more likely to return a not-guilty verdict if they have something to believe.”

Marino Eccher can be reached at 651-228-5421. Follow him at twitter.com/marinoeccher.

Crookston member of meth ring gets six years in prison

(via Grand Forks Herald) A Crookston man arrested last year after narcotics agents found $10,000 worth of methamphetamine hidden in his home was sentenced to six years in federal prison Tuesday for being part of a meth trafficking ring.

Jose Angel Fuentes, 33, pleaded guilty in Minnesota’s U.S. District Court to one count of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. His prison sentence is four years less than the mandatory minimum sentence in his case.

Fuentes was originally charged with one count of first-degree drug sale and one count of first-degree drug possession in Polk County District Court after agents raided his Crookston home last August, but the charges were dismissed after he was named—along with seven others—in a federal indictment as a member of a drug conspiracy to move large amounts of meth.

Two other members of the drug ring have pleaded guilty to conspiring to distribute meth, including Lonnie Alan “Gordo” “Fat Boy” Giles, who handled more than 500 grams of meth, according to the federal indictment. Giles was ordered to spend 20 years in federal prison.

Charges were pressed against Fuentes after the Pine-to-Prairie Regional Drug Task Force obtained a search warrant to search his Crookston home, where agents found 75 grams of methamphetamine hidden behind a wall in his garage, court records state.

During police questioning, officers say he admitted to hiding the meth for another person so as to pay off part of a debt he owed that person.

In a court document filed prior to sentencing, Fuentes’ lawyer Patrick Flanagan asked for leniency, arguing Fuentes was a “minor” player and pointing to his struggle with drug addiction and the role his addiction played in his choices.

“Mr. Fuentes’ addiction got the best of him, leading him back into poor decision making and into contact with one of the parties on this case,” Flanagan wrote.

Flanagan also cited national discourse on mandatory minimum sentences imposed in drug cases, pointing to how former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder has encouraged prosecutors to move away from mandatory minimums.

“The discussion as to how to best combat the criminal drug trade by imposing a criminal penalty upon the offender while also acknowledging the addiction the offender may have and that played a part in the poor decision making, is an ongoing discussion in the criminal justice system,” Flanagan wrote.

The judge chose to give Fuentes a sentence less than the mandatory minimum for conspiring to distribute at least 50 grams of meth, which is 10 years in prison.

He will receive credit for the year of jail time he served prior to his sentencing.

St. Paul party bus joyrider pleads guilty to DWI charge

(via TwinCities.com) A Forest Lake man has pleaded guilty to a DWI charge stemming from his joyride in a bar party bus in downtown St. Paul.

Michael Allan Schurrer, 48, was charged in March with three gross misdemeanors: second-degree DWI refusal to submit to a chemical test, third-degree DWI, and driving after cancellation of license.

He pleaded to the refusal charge Monday and was sentenced by Ramsey County District Judge Salvador Rosas to 90 days in jail, which he’ll be allowed to serve on electronic home monitoring or work release, if eligible. Rosas also ordered Schurrer to be placed on probation for two years. The other two charges were dismissed.

According to a criminal complaint, police were alerted on the evening of March 5 that someone had stolen a small party bus from outside Alary’s Bar on East Seventh Street.

When officers located the bus, less than a mile away near Charles Avenue and Capitol Heights, Schurrer was exiting the driver’s side of the vehicle. He appeared drunk and admitted he was drunk, the complaint said.

Alary’s didn’t want to press charges for the auto theft, police said at the time.

Schurrer had five DWI convictions from 1995 to 2008, according to court records. His driving privileges have been canceled since 1997, the complaint said. As part of his sentence, Schurrer is ordered to abstain from drinking.

At the time he was arrested and charged, Schurrer was listed as the Forest Lake Hockey Association’s director of junior gold/bantam teams, but no longer appears to hold the position.

The Minnesota high school boys state hockey tournament was under way at the Xcel Energy Center, though Forest Lake was not in the tournament.

Elizabeth Mohr can be reached at 651-228-5162. Follow her at twitter.com/LizMohr.