Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Ellison takeover of murder case from Moriarty at odds with campaign criticism of GOP

Attorney General Keith Ellison’s takeover of the case seems to counter Ellison’s stance during last year’s re-election campaign, when he criticized the idea of circumventing a county attorney without their permission.

Attorney General Keith Ellison
In an October interview, Attorney General Keith Ellison denounced his Republican opponent Jim Schultz for saying he might try to sidestep Mary Moriarty if she wasn’t tough enough on crime.

Attorney General Keith Ellison said Thursday he is pursuing justice by taking over a murder case in Hennepin County after prosecutor Mary Moriarty reached a controversial plea deal with two teenage boys accused of killing a 23-year-old woman.

Gov. Tim Walz authorized Ellison to step in, a decision that came after outcry from Zaria McKeever’s family and others. It also seems counter to Ellison’s stance during last year’s re-election campaign, when he criticized the idea of circumventing a county attorney without their permission.

In an October interview, Ellison denounced his Republican opponent Jim Schultz for saying he might try to sidestep Moriarty if she wasn’t tough enough on crime. Ellison narrowly defeated Schultz weeks later.

“I recognize the fact — and I want to say f-a-c-t fact — that they’re colleagues,” Ellison said of county attorneys like then-candidate Moriarty, who he endorsed. “They don’t work for me, we work together. And because I respect them, they respect me and we cooperate and we get justice done.”

Article continues after advertisement

“(Schultz) is making all these noises about how he’s just going to stomp all over them,” Ellison told MinnPost amid a heated campaign that Schultz focused on violent crime. “And that doesn’t make sense to me, not from a standpoint of putting victims first.”

Ellison said at the time that Schultz was trying to “demagogue crime” and said that avoiding an intervention would be a “pragmatic thing” to avoid unnecessary conflict with county attorneys.

On Thursday, Ellison asked Walz to let him take charge of the murder case, writing in a letter to the governor that Moriarty’s decisions were “so far outside the normal course for the prosecution of such a heinous crime, and so far outside of community expectations.” Ellison wrote that he initially asked Moriarty to turn the case over, a request she refused. Under state law, the AG can step in only at the request of a county attorney or the governor. In this case, Walz overruled Moriarty. 

Moriarty’s decision

Criminal charges say 22-year-old Erick Haynes directed the two teens — ages 15 and 17 — to break into McKeever’s home last year to target her new boyfriend. Haynes is the father of McKeever’s one-year-old daughter. One of the teens fatally shot McKeever in the confrontation using a gun Haynes gave him, according to charges.

Kare 11 reported that prosecutors under former Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman had moved to certify the teens as adults for second-degree murder charges that could have led to a lengthy prison sentence. But the county attorney’s office under Moriarty instead offered a plea deal in juvenile court for the teenage boys in exchange for testifying against Haynes. That deal would result in two years in juvenile prison and the potential for a longer adult sentence if they violate an extended probation period stretching until they turn 21.

While Moriarty has said the decision was based on the age of the teens and Haynes alleged role in orchestrating the confrontation, the plea deal drew sharp and public criticism from McKeever’s family.

Ellison’s letter says Moriarty’s decision was surprising and that the “community at large” is adamantly opposed to it. He offered to take over prosecution, which Moriarty rejected. The 17-year-old teen already pleaded guilty, and Ellison’s letter to Walz says “it is probably too late to change that.” The 15-year-old boy had a plea hearing scheduled Friday morning.

Moriarty condemned Ellison, saying in a long written statement that he was circumventing voters. She noted the Minnesota County Attorneys Association voted to oppose the AG asking Walz to give him the case. She said prosecuting a juvenile for homicide without seeking an adult certification wasn’t unprecedented.

Article continues after advertisement

“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 of Ellison. “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.”

Campaign trail comments

Last fall, Schultz, the Republican AG candidate, said he would take an aggressive approach to prosecuting crime. And Schultz said he worried Moriarty wouldn’t prosecute crime to his liking and might carry out some “reckless plans for the office.” 

The Republican attorney floated the idea of a law change that would allow him to take over cases without the permission of a county attorney like Moriarty — or the governor. And generally, he said he’d try to intervene when he felt necessary. Schultz likely would have been more aggressive compared to Ellison in trying to overrule Moriarty if he had been elected.

Some Democrats criticized Schultz, including Ellison himself. “This is politics man,” Ellison said about Schultz’s views. “This has nothing to do with justice or law. This is not about prosecuting criminals for the sake of accountability for victims and the public.”

Mary Moriarty
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Mary Moriarty condemned Ellison, saying in a long written statement that he was circumventing voters.
Schultz on Friday said Ellison was “clearly wrong in his (campaign trail) view that the AG’s office would not have a meaningful part to play in ensuring that justice is done in Hennepin County” and called on Ellison to intervene in other cases, too. 

He said he was glad the pressure from family, community leaders and police led Ellison and Walz to “do what should have been done immediately,” which is to certify the juveniles as adults.

Schultz also said Ellison was wrong to endorse Moriarty during the campaign and said both Ellison and Walz should call for her to resign. “I understand the reluctance of county attorneys to have an AG come in their territory,” Schultz said. “But Mary Moriarty is a special circumstance. She’s unfit for the job.”

Ellison’s office didn’t respond when asked if they would like to comment on his campaign statements. But he did issue a written statement on Thursday, saying he respects that county attorneys are elected to exercise their discretion. He also  acknowledged it was a rare step for him to intervene.

Article continues after advertisement

Robert Small, executive director of the county attorneys association, said a similar takeover by an AG happened once in a 1990s Crow Wing County case under Gov. Rudy Perpich.

“The Governor’s power under state law to assign criminal cases to the Attorney General has been used and should be used very sparingly, and I do not expect to make a request like it again,” Ellison said. “A prosecutor is a minister of justice, and justice is comprised of both accountability and mercy. 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.”