Court of appeals hears arguments on Sawina sentence

Anthony Sawina, the Lauderdale, Minn., man sentenced to 39 years in prison for the 2016 attempted murder of two men, had his day in appeals court Wednesday, with his attorney calling the sentence "extraordinary."

"Without minimizing what he did, 39 years is not appropriate for his conduct," attorney Bradford Colbert told a three-judge panel of the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

Colbert, who didn't represent Sawina during the 2017 trial, said what he found particularly remarkable is that prosecutors offered Sawina a pre-trial plea deal for 15 years in prison, which Sawina rejected. After the conviction, prosecutors asked for 25 years in prison.

"I've been practicing for 30 years," Colbert said. "I've never seen a district court increase a defendant's sentence by this amount for his conduct."

The shooting occurred after bar closing time in June 2016. The victims were among four Somali-American men who were in the Dinkytown neighborhood in Minneapolis. They were in a parked car when Sawina and the driver got into an argument. Some of the men in the car accused Sawina of using an anti-Muslim slur.

Sawina pulled a gun. One of the men got out of the car and ran. Sawina fired two bullets at the car as it began to drive away. One bullet went over the head of the driver and into the windshield. The other struck two men in the backseat of the car. They sustained wounds to their legs.

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The jury found Sawina guilty of nine felony counts; including attempted premeditated murder.

Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Kelly Moller argued Judge Kathryn Quaintance did not overstep her bounds even though the 39 year sentence was longer than the 25 years requested by prosecutors.

"That was certainly within its discretion and I think fair, given the trauma the appellant inflicted on these young men that evening," Moller said.

Colbert also argued the first-degree premeditated attempted murder convictions didn't fit Sawina's actions on the night of the shooting. One of the judges on the panel said he was surprised that Hennepin County prosecutors filed those charges in the first place. Colbert said proving premeditation is a close call, which makes the long sentence so inappropriate.

The panel has up to 90 days to issue an opinion. Colbert asked for a reversal of the convictions and the sentence. If the panel determines the sentence was inappropriate, Colbert said it's not up to them to say what that sentence should be. Instead, the judges would return the matter to Hennepin County for a new sentencing hearing.