Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty criticized Gov. Tim Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison during a Friday news conference after the governor used his executive authority to take away the murder case of Zaria McKeever from her office and hand it to Ellison’s.
Moriarty has faced backlash for reaching a plea deal with two teenage defendants, including from members of McKeever’s family, as well as Ellison, who criticized the plea deal publicly at an event on Wednesday.
“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 written statement.
Walz released a letter the following day assigning the case to Ellison’s office, followed by a statement where the governor said he has full confidence in Ellison to “seek justice and bring a modicum of peace to the grieving family.”
“This authority is rarely used, and it should remain an option of last resort,” Walz’s letter to Ellison reads. “As I have discussed with you, I have determined to exercise this authority only upon your formal written request. Your letter makes clear that you are requesting the authority to prosecute individuals responsible for the murder of Zaria McKeever.”
The case involves two brothers, ages 15 and 17, who were allegedly directed by the adult ex-boyfriend of 23-year-old McKeever to shoot and kill McKeever in her Brooklyn Park apartment last November. Moriarty’s office offered the juveniles plea deals involving shorter sentences in exchange for cooperation on the case against the ex-boyfriend.
Moriarty compared the intervention by Walz and Ellison to state officials in Republican-led states who target progressive prosecutors and intervene by taking cases away, including one instance in Florida where GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis removed Tampa prosecutor Andrew Warren after Warren vowed not to prosecute people under the state’s new abortion and gender-affirming care restrictions.
“This governor and this attorney general are doing exactly — precisely — what their opponents in the last election promised they would do,” she said. “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, only very recently by the way, because they don’t like this particular outcome.”
Moriarty said the Minnesota County Attorneys Association voted unanimously to oppose the decision by Walz and Ellison, agreeing that the decision to intervene could set a dangerous precedent where any prosecutor’s discretion may be challenged if someone disagrees with the outcome of any case.
The first-term top prosecutor defended her decision-making, arguing that she ran her campaign on reform that included restorative justice over lengthy prison sentences, and the residents of Hennepin County elected her to carry those out.
“We could send this 15-year-old to prison, he would get out in his early 30s. We know from research and all of the people you talk to who’ve gone to prison, he would be incredibly traumatized and come out more likely to commit violence,” she said. “He would be more of a danger to the community.”
Several family members of McKeever, including her sister Tiffynnie Epps, shouted questions at Moriarty during the news conference, asking what precedent Moriarty is setting by giving light sentences to people charged with murder.
“The wrong one,” Epps said. “That’s the answer.”
In an interview, Epps said she met with Ellison and sent several emails and tweets to the governor to try to get the case reassigned.
“You’re here to prosecute, not public defend, not offer slaps on the wrist, not give timeouts,” Epps said. “You’re here to prosecute and to charge people with their crimes.”
MinnPost reporter Kyle Stokes contributed to this report.