Minnesota's Keith Ellison Thwarts a Reform Prosecutor He Endorsed

A murder case involving two juvenile defendants is testing a promise from progressives to change the criminal legal system in Minneapolis.

Eamon Whalen | April 13, 2023

Minnesota State Attorney General Keith Ellison speaking at an event in 2018. (Flickr/Lorie Shaull)

This article is produced as a collaboration between Shorelinescripts and Mother Jones.

In Minnesota, a disagreement on how to prosecute two teenagers suspected of killing a 23-year-old has put two of the state’s leading criminal justice reformers into a high-profile political dispute, testing how much change even progressive politicians are willing to embrace.

Last Friday, Governor Tim Walz assigned State Attorney General Keith Ellison–a former six-term congressman and Deputy Chair of the Democratic National Committee–to handle the prosecution of the murder, taking the case away from Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty. Walz decided to give Ellison the case after Ellison criticized Moriarty as too lenient and requested it be transferred to him. His move is a direct rebuke of the newly elected Moriarty, whose win in November had marked a major triumph for criminal justice reformers.

Moriarty is one of many progressives who believe there is a false choice between public safety and a punitive carceral system. She ran last year for prosecutor because after the murder of George Floyd she saw “an opportunity for racial reckoning” in Minneapolis, and the possibility of it slipping away as racialized fears of crime took hold. Moriarty promised to change the criminal legal system in Hennepin County by using more rehabilitative options and diversion programs to reduce incarceration as opposed to imposing harsh sentences.

A central plank of that vision, as she explained to Mother Jones and Shorelinescripts last October, was changing how the criminal legal system treats kids, including moving away from trying minors as adults. “It's really important to focus many more resources on our youth. And also to look at it from a science perspective,” she said. “We know kids are very susceptible to impulsive behavior….And with so many guns out there, we're ending up with a lot of tragic consequences.”

A recent memo from Sarah Davis, Moriarty’s Director of the Children and Families division, translated that campaign rhetoric into office policy. Citing youth brain development as “the foundation of our approach,” Moriarty’s prosecutors would “make every effort to keep children out of the court system when possible” to reduce youth recidivism.

Ellison and Moriarty have long worked together in Minnesota to push reform. A Democrat who endorsed Senator Bernie Sanders for president, Ellison gained nationwide acclaim for leading the successful prosecution of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. At the time, Moriarty had recently been controversially dismissed from her position as chief public defender. During the Chauvin trial, she worked as a local television analyst, translating Ellison’s prosecution for a lay audience. Ellison called for an investigation of her dismissal and publicly raised the possibility that it was punishment for her racial justice advocacy. In 2022, when Moriarty began to campaign for County Attorney, Ellison endorsed her. The political nonprofit TakeAction hosted canvassing events supporting Moriarty’s election and Ellison’s reelection. 

This case radically changes their relationship. After narrowly winning his election for attorney general against an opponent who called him “soft” on crime, Ellison has swooped in to prosecute the murder despite Moriarty’s insistence he should not.

She harshly criticized the move by Walz and Ellison as an “undemocratic” overreach, likening the decision to those made by Republican politicians nationwide who have attempted to usurp the authority of local prosecutors.

The case shows the immense difficulties that progressive prosecutors face as they attempt to carry out the mandate of reform on which they were elected, and guide the public away from a tough-on-crime approach. “One of the reasons being a prosecutor is so difficult is because you have to look at a case where there's an unimaginable harm and then decide what accountability, justice and punishment are appropriate to request,” Moriarty said in a press conference Friday.

On November 8, 2022, just days after Moriarty and Ellison won their elections, Zaria McKeever, 23, was killed in a home invasion in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Park. Prosecutors claim two brothers, ages 15 and 17 years old at the time, killed McKeever on behalf of Erick Haynes–McKeever’s ex-boyfriend and the father of her one-year-old child. Initially, Michael Freeman—the long-serving county attorney who embodied the traditional carceral approach Moriarty ran against and came under immense criticism for his handling of police killings—planned to try the brothers in adult court.

After Hennepin County elected Moriarty, prosecutors changed course. Instead of a trial, her office offered plea deals that sentenced the brothers to two years in a juvenile facility with extended probation in exchange for testimony against Haynes. If they violated their probation, the brothers would be subject to an adult sentence under a doctrine called Extended Juvenile Jurisdiction (EJJ)- a hybrid approach reserved for young people over the age of 14 who are accused of committing certain serious crimes, the adult sentence can be imposed up to the age of 21. The elder brother accepted the deal.

The announcement of the change in prosecution deeply angered McKeever’s family. “It was choked down our throat without any concern about how we felt,” her stepfather Paul Greer told the Star Tribune. “We will not stand for it.”At a community meeting that McKeever’s family attended at Shiloh Temple, a prominent Black church in Minneapolis, Ellison voiced his disapproval of the plea deals. Ellison then sent a letter to Walz last Thursday asking to take over the case before the Friday hearing for the young brother. In the letter, he noted that Moriarty had “refused” his initial request to take over the prosecution. Walz granted the request, saying that “this authority is rarely used, and it should remain an option of last resort.” According to the Star Tribune, a Minnesota governor has stepped in only one other time in the state’s modern history to reassign a case against the will of a county attorney.

“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,” Ellison said in a statement on Friday. “I respect that county attorneys are duly elected by their constituents 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.”

In a tense press conference on the same day, Moriarty defended the plea deals as her following through on campaign promises–changing how the county attorney’s office would deal with young people involved in gun violence. In 2021, when homicides approached a near record high, two thirds of shooting victims in Minneapolis were under the age of 31, according to a city report. “I am keeping a promise,” Moriarty said “[Ellison and Walz] are not.”

Moriarty said Ellison and Walz “are entitled to their opinion, but their actions here show that they also don't really believe fully in democracy–because they are stopping me from doing the job voters elected me to do. That is unacceptable. They have set a very dangerous precedent.” 

In fact, Ellison is doing what his recent Republican opponent Jim Schultz warned of throughout the campaign last fall. “In a scenario in which we have somebody like a Mary Moriarty in the Hennepin County Attorney’s office,” Schultz told MinnPost when asked about the possibility of taking over prosecution, “I think we have to take a look at something along those lines.” Ellison denounced this overreach at the time. (When Mother Jones and Shorelinescripts asked about using a technique Ellison criticized, his office said they “don’t have anything to add” beyond the initial statement.)

The Minnesota chapter of the National Lawyers Guild sent a letter to Walz and Ellison expressing their “vigorous objection” to the decision, warning that it joins a national trend.

In Florida, Ron DeSantis removed twice-elected Hillsborough County state attorney Andrew Warren after Warren pledged not to prosecute those who seek or provide abortions. In Pennsylvania, the state legislature attempted to impeach Larry Krasner, one of the most well-known reform prosecutors in the country. In Missouri, the attorney general is in the process of trying to remove St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner from office. A new bill in the Georgia state senate would create a “Prosecuting Attorneys Oversight Commission” with the power to remove prosecutors from office, just as Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis ramps up an investigation into Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election.

“You have tragically become part of a disturbing reactionary national trend and placed yourselves in the company of the likes of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Missouri Governor Mike Parson by preventing a local progressive prosecutor from exercising her prosecutorial discretion in acting consistently with her principles–and the principles that she was elected to carry out,” the Guild wrote. “Your decision to play to the crowd does grave damage toward making reform a reality.”

The Minnesota County Attorneys Association voted unanimously to oppose Walz’s decision to hand the case to Ellison, despite the attorney general asking for their support. The MCAA is made up of prosecutors across the state, showing a rejection of this kind of jurisdictional encroachment that transcends traditional political lines. “To so-called left wing prosecutors and so-called right wing prosecutors there seemed to be general agreement that this was a problem,” said Friedman.

During the 2022 campaign, Ellison was hammered by Schultz as being “soft on crime,” before narrowly defeating him in the closest statewide race of the year. “To what extent is this about the perception of him politically across the state versus what he thinks is justice in this situation?” asked Michael Friedman, the former Executive Director of the Minneapolis based Legal Rights Center. “I'm not saying that with a specific accusation. I just think those are the kinds of questions that would need to be asked of him.”

At the press conference Friday, Moriarty said that in offering the two teenagers a plea deal she was trying to “make sure that there is accountability” without incarcerating someone for an extended period of time, after which it is likely they would “come out more dangerous to the community.”

There is research to back up this idea. “If you can keep children out of the adult justice system until they're in their mid-twenties, they're extremely unlikely to enter it,” said Chris Uggen, the Distinguished McKnight Professor in Sociology, Law, and Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. “So in that sense, much of the science is on [Moriarty’s] side.” (However, Uggen added that “blended sentences” like the EJJ offered to the two teenagers is itself a “compromise” that has mixed results.)

But at the event, Moriarty was shouted down by McKeever’s loved ones for these ideas.

“What do you get for executing someone and shooting somebody five times? What’s the law for that? asked McKeever’s cousin Shontell Bishop and her sister Tiffynnie Epps.” “The law, not the science.”

“We could send this 15-year-old to prison and he’d get out in his early 30s,” Moriarty explained.

“Wonderful,” a supporter of McKeever shouted back. “Zaria didn’t make it to her early 30s.”

This confrontation highlights the complex racial dynamics of the case. Ellison is the most powerful Black political figure in the state coming to the aid of a Black family who believe their calls for justice have gone unheard in a place where Black people are “overpoliced and underprotected.” In 2021, there was one Black shooting victim for every 150 Black residents in Minneapolis. For white people, there was one shooting victim for every 3,768 residents. According to a data analysis by the Minnesota Reformer, police fail to solve nearly eight in ten shootings in Minneapolis.

Moriarty is a white prosecutor with a track record of calling out racist practices in the office she now leads. Her 30-plus year career on the other side of the courtroom has enshrined a steadfast belief that punitive policies disproportionately harm Black people, and don’t produce public safety in the long term. “There was no bait and switch here,” said Uggen. “This is exactly what she ran on.”

Her opponent last year, a Black former judge and prosecutor who argued for a more punitive approach, framed Moriarty’s policies as putting criminals first, saying she was insensitive to the dilemma that Black people who live in high-crime neighborhoods face. Moriarty went on to win every single one of those neighborhoods. But this episode reveals the hurdles that await reform prosecutors as they seek to go about the job differently, especially among the populations experiencing violence most acutely.

“I don't want to imply that Moriarty is on the wrong side of the racial justice issues at all, because she has been a true champion,” said Uggen. “[But] race is very much front and center in this issue, as it is in everything regarding justice in Minnesota.”