Crime, Law and Justice

Hennepin Co. prosecutor Moriarty rips Walz, Ellison for taking over McKeever case

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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 1:30 p.m.

Tensions escalated Friday around the killing of Zaria McKeever as Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty publicly criticized Gov. Tim Walz and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison for taking the case out of her hands.

Even as she criticized Walz and Ellison and defended her own decision-making, Moriarty was confronted during her late morning press conference by McKeever’s family, who pushed back against Moriarty for offering a plea deal to the juveniles accused in McKeever’s killing.

“I am keeping a promise. They are not,” Moriarty said of Walz and Ellison. “They may disagree with my decision in this case — and it was a terribly difficult decision … but their actions show they really don’t believe in democracy.”

She compared it to actions by Republican leaders in Florida and Missouri and said the Minnesota leaders “have set a very dangerous precedent.”

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

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

Moriarty, whose office was 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.

McKeever’s family was upset by the plea deals. Ellison also publicly disagreed with the approach.

Speaking on the MPR News Politics Friday program, Ellison said that while he respects county prosecutors, the offer was not appropriate for the severity of the crime.

"One of the teenagers helped stalk, home invaded and then shot this 23-year-old woman — 23-year-old woman — five times with her child present in the house,” the attorney general said. “That kind of disposition warrants more than a juvenile disposition."

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

The governor told reporters during a Friday morning stop in Moorhead that he’d heard from people upset with Moriarty’s decision, including many leaders in the Twin Cities Black community.

"It sends a message to the community that there are standards, no matter how young you are, that we have to adhere to,” Walz said.

Speaking to reporters Friday at the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis, Moriarty said her office looked at the law and the science of juvenile behavior in recommending the plea deals.

“We could send this 15-year-old to prison. He would be out in his early 30s. We know from the research he would be incredibly traumatized and more likely to commit violence,” she said. “He would be more of a danger to the community.”

The plea deal for the then 15-year-old would have included time at the state’s juvenile corrections facility in Red Wing, which would have provided accountability, she added. Her office also took into account that the teen was “manipulated by an adult,” in the alleged crime. Sending juveniles to prison “hasn’t kept us safer,” Moriarty said.

As Moriarty took questions Friday after her remarks, McKeever family members and friends questioned the prosecutor’s decision-making.

When she spoke of the potential trauma the 15-year-old would face in prison, family members interjected that McKeever faced the ultimate trauma in her killing.