Crime, Law and Justice

Final three defendants plead guilty in Minnesota murder case taken away from local prosecutor

three people sit at a table
The Minnesota Board of Pardons, from left to right, is Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz and Minnesota State Supreme Court Chief Justice Natalie Hudson.
Peter Cox | MPR News 2023

The final three people accused in the killing of a young mother have pleaded guilty in a rare situation where Gov. Tim Walz took the case away from Hennepin County prosecutors and handed it to Attorney General Keith Ellison amid public criticism that the original plea deal was too lenient.

In a plea agreement, Erick Haynes pleaded guilty Monday to one count of first-degree murder in the 2022 death of Zaria McKeever. Eriana Haynes and Tavion James pleaded guilty to one count each of aiding an offender after the fact for helping to cover up the shooting, Ellison’s office said in a news release.

Erick Haynes will be sentenced April 12. First-degree murder in Minnesota carries a mandatory life sentence with the possibility of parole after 30 years. The state will recommend a four-year sentence for Eriana Haynes and a sentence of three years and six months for James, Ellison’s office said.

The indictment of Erick Haynes said he sent two juveniles into an apartment with guns to kill McKeever’s new boyfriend on Nov. 8, 2022. Instead, the juveniles shot McKeever, 23, five times.

On March 22, 17-year-old Foday Kevin Kamara pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree intentional murder for his role in the killing. Kamara had agreed to be certified as an adult. The state agreed to recommend that Kamara get 10 years and 10 months at his sentencing May 8. Minnesota inmates typically serve two-thirds of their sentences in prison and the rest on supervised release.

“With all defendants in this case having now pleaded guilty for their roles in this heinous crime, today is another important step toward justice for Zaria and her family,” Ellison said in the news release.

McKeever, of Brooklyn Park, was the mother of a 1-year-old child.

Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty had offered Kamara and another defendant juvenile plea deals that would have spared them lengthy adult sentences in exchange for their testimony. Moriarty said at the time that prosecuting them as juveniles offered the best chance for rehabilitation.

Ellison and Walz intervened over Moriarty’s objections after the other juvenile’s plea deal had already been accepted.

The attorney general typically takes over criminal cases only at the request of local prosecutors. At the request of Moriarty’s predecessor, Ellison prosecuted former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd.