Gov. Walz assigns Zaria McKeever case to Ellison after county offers plea deals

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The assignment of the case by a governor to a state attorney general is rarely used, but Walz said this case merited that assignment.
Renee Jones Schneider | Star Tribune via AP, File

Updated: April 7, 10:44 a.m. | Posted: April 6, 7:03 p.m.

A dispute over a juvenile plea deal in a Hennepin County case has led the governor to step in and assign the case to Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison.

Gov. Tim Walz used his executive authority to assign the case of Zaria McKeever’s death to the state’s attorney general, after Ellison’s office requested the case.

Two juveniles, ages 15 and 17, are accused of killing 23-year-old McKeever in her Brooklyn Park apartment last November at the direction of her ex-boyfriend.

Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty, whose office is prosecuting the case, had offered the two juveniles plea deals in exchange for their testimony in another case.  In a March statement, Moriarty said both would plead guilty to juvenile charges and cooperate in the prosecution of Erick Haynes, 22, who was charged with second-degree murder.

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According to media reports, McKeever’s family was upset by the plea deals. Ellison said during a public event Wednesday that he also disagreed with making that deal to violent offenders.

Ellison requested the case be assigned to his office, and Gov. Walz did so Thursday afternoon.

The assignment of the case by a governor to a state attorney general is rarely used, but Walz said this case merited that assignment.

“I have absolute confidence in Attorney General Ellison,” Walz said in a statement.  “He has requested this important case and stepped up once again to serve the people of Minnesota. I know Keith will work tirelessly to seek justice and bring a modicum of peace to the grieving family.” 

In a statement, Ellison said, “While I share the belief that too many juveniles are involved in the adult criminal-justice system, accountability for the seriousness of this crime has been missing in this case.”

He goes on to say he respects county attorneys and their right 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.”

Hennepin County Attorney Moriarty was not pleased.

“Inserting himself in these cases simply because he disagrees with the choice I was elected to make is deeply troubling and should alarm prosecutors across the state,” Moriarty said in a statement. “This decision undermines the longstanding constitutional authority, autonomy, and responsibility of elected prosecutors. It threatens the very core of a local prosecutor’s well-settled discretion and role as an elected official accountable to the people to prosecute crime in the county.”

Moriarty said the decisions her office has made were made with a balance of “the victims’ wishes, the factors of youth and what protects the public safety in both the short and the long term.”

“We have approached this case trying to balance the need for justice, the need for accountability, and the fact that we have a tenth grader who can either be kept in the juvenile system or locked up with people three times his size and are three times his age. Our decisions were not easy but we stand by them,” she said.