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Minneapolis man guilty in killing of Birdell Beeks

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Messages line a poster of Birdell Beeks.
Messages from friends a family lined a poster of Birdell Beeks inside her daughter Sa'Lesha's Brooklyn Park, Minn. home.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Updated: 6:05 p.m. | Posted: 10:30 a.m.

Jurors on Wednesday found Joshua Ezeka guilty of five felony charges, including murder, in the shooting death of Birdell Beeks on a north Minneapolis street on May 26, 2016.

Ezeka was convicted of charges including first-degree murder, second-degree murder, two counts of attempted murder and second-degree assault. 

The fatal shooting of the 58-year-old grandmother a year and a half ago stirred outrage. Investigators say it was set into motion when a gang rival crossed over an invisible territorial boundary on Broadway Avenue in north Minneapolis.

Tipped off to the rival's presence by a 165-second phone call, Ezeka went outside and fired a handgun nine times towards the rival's car. One of those bullets hit and killed Birdell Beeks, whose van was stopped at an intersection across the street.

Joshua Chiazor Ezeka was charged in the shooting death of Birdell Beeks.
Joshua Chiazor Ezeka was charged in the shooting death of Birdell Beeks.
Hennepin County Jail

The defense did not contest that Ezeka was the shooter. They argued throughout the trial that Ezeka was just trying to scare his rival during the shooting that killed Beeks. The prosecution countered that Ezeka made a number of "intentional and deliberate choices" that led up to Beeks' death, and that the evidence showed Ezeka was shooting to kill, even though he missed his intended target.

Rivalry sparks shooting

Investigators believe the rivalry between alliances of gangs calling themselves "highs" and "lows" provide the motive for the shooting. The two groups claim opposite ends of north Minneapolis, and are made up of cliques like Young N' Thuggin' or the Stick Up Boys.  

Investigators say it was about 6 p.m. on the day of Beeks' death that a fellow "low" phoned Ezeka to say he'd spotted a rival heading south on Penn Avenue. They say Ezeka grabbed a .380 Bersa Thunder semi-automatic handgun with an extended clip. He exited his home through the back door, walked to a vacant lot overlooking Penn Avenue and fired nine shots toward the rival's car.

There were no injuries to the rival, who testified that the 4-year-old girl who was also in the car covered her ears at the sounds of gunfire — the girl was also unharmed.

One of the bullets Ezeka fired hit Beeks, who was at a stop sign at 21st and Penn avenues. The medical examiner's office found that the bullet went through Beeks' arm and into her chest, where it severed a major artery. Beeks' last words to her granddaughter in the passenger seat were, 'Baby, they got me.'

Although police searched Ezeka's home the day of the shooting, investigators testified that the case stalled for a time. But in January, they interviewed a man named Freddy Scott, who admitted to phoning Ezeka before the shooting and picking him up afterwards.

Scott testified against Ezeka in exchange for a reduced sentence of 36 months. On the final day of testimony, prosecutors played recorded jailhouse phone conversations from earlier this month where they say Ezeka discussed retaliation against Scott.   

Ezeka shot, but did he intend to kill?

One component of the most serious charges against Ezeka are whether the acts were intentional. Under the law, Ezeka can be held accountable for intentionally killing Beeks if he was trying to kill his rival.

Defense attorney Paul Schneck conceded during closing arguments that Ezeka fired the shots that killed Beeks. But Schneck pointed to an interview Ezeka did in January where he told investigators he was trying to scare his rival when he opened fire.

"Shooting nine bullets, that achieved the effect," Schneck said. The rival "drove away."

Prosecutor Dominick Mathews told jurors that Ezeka intentionally made a choice at each step leading up to the shooting, from when he picked up his gun to when he pulled the trigger.

"When you point a gun and you fire it, you do so with the intent that you're going to destroy whatever you're firing at," Mathews said. "We all know what guns do."

Mathews also argued that if Ezeka really meant to scare his rival, he could have fired the gun in the air or waved it around. Mathews says nine shots fired in just a couple seconds "doesn't sound like shots that are meant to scare."

Sa'Lesha Beeks sits for a portrait.
Sa'Lesha Beeks sits for a portrait with her mother Birdell Beeks' ashes.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Beeks' killing sparked outrage in the Twin Cities, and a campaign for justice from her family that included rewards and public pleas for information, forwarding tips to investigators and even artwork.

Members of the close-knit Beeks family have packed one side of the courtroom each day of the trial, comforting one another during the sometimes graphic testimony or chatting quietly during court delays. Birdell Beeks' daughter Sa'Lesha testified that her mother was a "pillar of the community."

After the verdict, Beeks said she didn't see any remorse from Ezeka, and she can't forgive him, but the prospect of Ezeka spending his life prison is bittersweet.  

"It doesn't bring my mom back, but we got justice," Sa'Lesha Beeks said, "almost in a sad way, because two lives were lost."

Granddaughter Ne'Asha Griffin, who is now 17, told the court that her grandmother had always been her "cheerleader." Griffin, who's heading to college in Florida this year, said she's set her college acceptance letter next to the urn containing her grandmother's ashes.