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Should teens go to adult prison for murder?

A victim's family in an active case is protesting a decision by Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty that follows her campaign promise.

MINNEAPOLIS — When Mary Moriarty was running for Hennepin County Attorney, one of the key planks of her campaign platform was reforming the prosecution of juveniles.

Now, Moriarty's belief that adult prison is not the answer for juvenile offenders is being put to the test, as the family of a murder victim protests.

Zaria McKeever was shot to death in her apartment in Brooklyn Park in November. According to court papers, Zaria's controlling ex-boyfriend, Erick Haynes, gave a gun to two teens, drove them there and sent them inside. A 15-year-old allegedly pulled the trigger alongside his 17-year-old brother.

"If you do adult crime, you should do adult time," Zaria's sister Tiffynnie Epps said.

The Hennepin County Attorney's Office under Mike Freeman pursued just that — adult certification for the two teens so that they could be tried in adult court alongside Haynes for second-degree murder.

But since taking office, Moriarty's office informed Zaria's family they've decided to offer the teens a plea deal in juvenile court in return for testifying against Haynes.

Then, the teens would complete a two-year rehabilitation program at the juvenile prison in Red Wing and be released under supervision with a suspended prison sentence held over their heads until they turn 21.

"We are following the science. And as I said in the campaign, we need to treat kids like kids. Kids aren’t simply small adults. Their brains aren’t as developed. They’re subject to peer pressure, risky behavior, manipulation by adults — is what happened here," Moriarty said. "And they can be rehabilitated because their brains aren’t fully developed. And we also know when we send kids to prison, they are going to come out at a fairly young age, they’re going to be traumatized and they will be at a greater risk to public safety."

Zaria's family disagrees with the decision and says they feel betrayed by the course change by the prosecutor's office.

"They failed to even realize or understand that these are real people. We are not statistics. [Zaria] was not a statistic," said Zaria's stepfather, Paul Greer.

"We feel like we're being used in a political game," Epps added.

Moriarty is still aggressively prosecuting Haynes and plans to ask for an aggravated sentence if he is convicted, which is possible since he's accused of enlisting juveniles to carry out the crime.

But Zaria's family holds the teens accountable as well for their alleged roles.

"I just hope that these boys and other people like them would not get out and be a repetitive criminal and do this to one of your loved ones. I pray to God it don’t happen to you," said Zaria's mother, Maria Greer.

Despite asking for the family's input, prosecutors do not need the victim's family's blessing to offer a plea deal.

"We listened, ultimately it is our role to decide what is appropriate in terms of public safety. So I have great empathy for the family. I can’t imagine what they’re going through. We did listen. I understand they disagree with the decision, but ultimately we have to do what’s right for public safety in this case," Moriarty said.

The new approach to handling juvenile offenders is not part of a blanket policy at the Hennepin County Attorney's Office. Moriarty said they will still certify some juveniles as adults on a case-by-case basis.

The plea deal for the two juveniles rests on their cooperation in the case against Haynes. He's back in court in two weeks.

Zaria's family has a Gofundme page set up.


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