Twin Cities women in prison for teen’s death are released under new felony-murder law

man in beanie holds foam cup
Corey Elder was killed in a 2017 home invasion.
Courtesy of Noe Townsend

Updated: 5:45 p.m.

Two women convicted in connection with a 2017 home invasion murder were released from prison last week because of a change in state law. Megan Christine Cater, 25, of Lakeville and Briana Marie Martinson, 27, of Prior Lake are the first people to be released from custody after legislators overhauled Minnesota’s felony murder statute.

While the two admitted taking part in the burglary of Corey Elder’s apartment, a judge found that they did not share responsibility for his murder.

On April 27, 2017, Corey Elder, 19, was at home in Bloomington when Cater and Martinson showed up at his apartment. Recognizing them as acquaintances and past drug customers, Elder opened the door. 

But waiting in the hallway were Tarrance Fontaine Murphy and Maurice Antonio Verser, who rushed in behind them. As the men beat and pistol whipped Elder, Cater and Martinson ransacked the apartment in search of drugs. 

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Moments later, Verser took the Colt .45 caliber revolver, pressed it to Elder’s neck, and fired once as Elder’s girlfriend, Noe Townsend, lay beside him. As the seventh anniversary of that night approaches, Townsend said she’s improving, though the memories remain raw.

“I deal with a lot of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder because of what happened to me, so it definitely affected my everyday life,” Townsend said in a phone interview with MPR News. 

Verser, 40, of Minneapolis is serving a 32-year sentence for second-degree intentional murder and assault. Murphy, 27, also of Minneapolis, received 20 years.

Cater and Martinson were not in the bedroom with Verser when he fired the fatal shot. But in a deal with prosecutors, the women pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting second-degree unintentional murder. In 2018, Judge Kerry Meyer sentenced them to 13.5 years each.  

Then in 2023, lawmakers in the DFL-led Minnesota Legislature put new restrictions around the state’s felony murder statute. Under the old law, prosecutors could charge a person with aiding and abetting murder during the commission of an underlying felony no matter their role in that felony. 

Mary Moriarty, a longtime public defender who was elected Hennepin County Attorney in 2022, supports the change. 

“It is not fair when two people get charged with murder when one of them pulled the trigger and the other one had no idea this was going to happen,” Moriarty said. “Certainly both people have to be held accountable, but they should be held accountable for what they actually do.” 

Moriarty noted that under the old felony murder law, a killer who signs a plea deal could wind up with a shorter sentence than his accomplice who drove the getaway car and is convicted at trial. 

The revised statute limits felony murder prosecutions to people who caused the victim’s death, intended to cause it, or were major participants in the underlying crime. Legislators made the changes retroactive. That allowed Cater and Martinson to petition the court to vacate their murder convictions. 

Last week, Judge Meyer resentenced Martinson and Cater to 57 and 69 months respectively for burglary with a firearm. Because they’d already served that time, the two left prison.

Mitchell-Hamline law professor Bradford Colbert, who’s also a part-time public defender, represented Martinson and said the court held his client accountable for her part in the crime and nothing more. 

“Ms. Martinson feels awful about what happened,” Colbert said. “But justice isn’t necessarily the longest prison sentence imaginable. And justice has to align with culpability, and what Ms. Martinson was involved [in] was a burglary. And she didn’t contemplate or intend for anyone to be killed.” 

In an email to MPR News, Cater’s attorney and University of Minnesota law professor JaneAnne Murray said that Minnesota’s old felony murder law has resulted in sentences for too many defendants that are disproportionate to their culpability.

“Our client was only 19 at the time of her offense, and she did not intend or participate in a murder,” Murray wrote. “It is right and just that she, and many similarly-situated to her, get punished for what they did, and not for the conduct of others.”  

Bobbie Elder, Corey Elder’s mother, countered that the women were major participants in the burglary and their felony murder convictions should stand, even under the new law. 

“Megan Cater and Briana Martinson were the masterminds behind this entire thing,” Elder told MPR News. “They were the planners of it. They were the ones who ensured that there was a gun on scene. If all they wanted to do was rob somebody, they wouldn’t have had to go to the extremes of planning what they did.”

“Why do they get a second chance when he’s dead?” Townsend asked. “He doesn’t get a second chance. So I’m really not happy with the outcome of it.”

Last month Meyer rejected Tarrance Murphy’s bid for a sentence reduction after determining that he was a major participant in the robbery and admitted pointing the gun at Townsend. 

As Elder’s loved ones prepare to mark what would have been his 26th birthday on Friday, Meyer is deciding whether to free two other defendants. 

Alec Price Streit, 26, of Minneapolis and Noah John Peterson, 27, of Lakeville helped plan the burglary but waited outside as the others carried it out.

The men are serving sentences of just under 13 years. But Meyer is allowing them to move ahead with petitions to vacate their convictions after finding that they are likely to succeed in their bids under Minnesota’s new felony murder law.

Correction (Feb. 13, 2024): A previous version of this story had the incorrect length of the new sentences that Cater and Martinson received. The story above has been updated.