Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced at the 11th hour Thursday that Gov. Tim Walz accepted his request to take over the prosecution of Zaria McKeever’s alleged murderers.
The announcement follows widespread criticism of Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty’s decision to offer plea deals to the alleged killers in juvenile court in exchange for their testimony, a departure from her predecessor who sought to certify the 15- and 17-year-old brothers as adults.
McKeever’s ex-boyfriend, Erick Haynes, who is facing second-degree murder charges, allegedly drove the brothers to her Brooklyn Park apartment and provided them with a gun.
A judge recently signed off on the plea deal for the elder brother. The other is scheduled to appear in court Friday.
McKeever was murdered in Brooklyn Park on Nov. 8 at the age of 23, leaving behind a 1-year-old daughter. Under Moriarty’s plea deals, the two brothers were facing up to two years in a juvenile facility followed by probation.
“My request to Gov. Walz to assign the prosecution of this case to my office is one I did not make lightly. I requested that Hennepin County refer the prosecution of this case to my office, as the law provides, but they declined to do so. The governor’s power under state law to assign criminal cases to the attorney general has been used and should be used very sparingly, and I do not expect to make a request like it again,” Ellison said in a statement.
“I respect that county attorneys are duly elected by their constituents to exercise their discretion; however, the disposition of the juvenile shooter that Hennepin County has proposed in this case is disproportionate to the seriousness of the crime committed and falls far short of the family’s and community’s expectations for justice and safety,” he added.
Ellison endorsed Moriarty’s campaign for Hennepin County attorney and said he shares her “belief that too many juveniles are involved in the adult criminal-justice system.”
McKeever’s family members pleaded with the state to intervene during a community meeting at Shiloh Temple Wednesday.
“Attorney General Keith, you say you stand in solidarity with us. I don’t buy that there’s nothing you can do. I’m not putting you on the spot just to be doing it. You were our last hope. You gave us hope when we met with you. You gave us things to do and we followed it to the letter. We did everything that you suggested without fail. And here we are still trying to get justice for Zaria. In two days, the 15-year-old (16 now) will be given the same deal that his brother was given and he pulled the trigger. Make no mistake about it: it was an execution, [he] stood over her body and put five bullets in her with a 1-year-old left behind,” McKeever’s stepfather Paul Greer said.
“If y’all want to support us, y’all need to help us figure out how we can get justice within two days for a 16-year-old getting 24 months for executing our child,” he continued.
McKeever’s sister Tiffynnie Epps said Moriarty was “basically just returning to sender.”
“You’re giving them back to their mom. Their mom already had a problem with them,” she said. “We just can’t trust Mary or her decisions or anything, not the way she moves. We just can’t.”
She also called on the governor to assign Ellison to the case.
Moriarty campaigned on juvenile justice reform and vowed to pursue “restorative justice practices” in cases involving minors.
“Kids are just that: kids. Research shows that the decision making part of the brain responsible for impulse control and risk taking is not fully developed until the age of twenty-five,” her campaign website states.
She called Ellison’s decision to “insert himself” in the case “deeply troubling” and something that “should alarm prosecutors across the state,” noting that the Minnesota County Attorneys Association unanimously opposed the attorney general’s intervention.
“Prosecuting a juvenile for homicide without seeking an adult certification is not unprecedented in Minnesota. But the attorney general’s decision to insert himself in a prosecution when an elected county attorney is actively prosecuting a case is unprecedented,” she said in a statement Thursday.
Moriarty said that, because she gained the cooperation of the two teens, she was able to charge two additional adults in the case, bringing the total number of defendants to five.
“I am sure that the attorney general has disagreed with many outcomes in many cases in this state over the years, some because the sentences are too low and some because the sentences are too harsh,” she said. “It is unfortunate that, in what has become a very high-profile case, he has decided to instigate an unprecedented intervention.”