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Minnesota lawmakers propose changes to felony murder laws

Minnesota is one of 15 states that mandates a life sentence for certain felony murder convictions.
Credit: KARE 11
Minnesota lawmakers are considering a series of bills to close loopholes exposed by KARE 11's investigation.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Megan Cater and her friend Briana Martinson went to a friend's house in 2017 to retrieve prescription medication they thought was stolen from Martinson. They brought along two of their friends, who brought another man, who ended up threatening the women and killing their friend.

All six were charged with murder under a legal doctrine known as “felony murder.” Cater, now 24, is more than four years into a 13.5-year sentence after taking a plea deal.

“The girls could never have imagined what was going to happen,” said Toni Cater, Megan's mother, told lawmakers in the House Judiciary committee Tuesday. “What we know now is that this is not uncommon.”

Felony murder occurs when someone causes a death while committing a felony. When combined with aiding and abetting, anyone involved in the felony that led to the person’s death can be convicted of murder. And that can lead to a life sentence without parole in Minnesota.

Legislation authored by Democratic Rep. Dave Pinto, of St. Paul, a Ramsey County prosecutor, would limit felony murder charges to people who committed the killing and those who directly aided them, as well as those who act with reckless disregard for human life. Pinto said his bill would limit liability to those who committed the crime — not those who may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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“When there's a distance or a gap between someone in a situation and someone else being killed, we want to make sure that we're examining that, to be sure that we're holding accountable people who were directly involved in that — and not holding accountable people who weren't,” he said.

Minnesota is one of 15 states that mandates a life sentence for certain felony murder convictions.

A third of 2021 murder convictions in Minnesota were felony murder cases, according to a report released Wednesday by Fair and Just Prosecution and The Sentencing Project. In Hennepin and Ramsey, the state's most populous counties, Minnesotans of color accounted for 80% of second-degree felony murder convictions between 2012 and 2018, according to the report.

Lawmakers last year commissioned a task force of prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement officers and community members to study felony murder laws and recommend changes. It concluded in its own February report that current laws lack fairness and can lead to disproportionate punishment and disregard for whether a defendant intended to cause harm.

The bill would prevent charging people with felony murder unless they were “a major participant in the underlying felony and acted with extreme indifference to human life.” And it would allow those serving sentences for it to petition to have their convictions thrown out.

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“The issue has been around for a long time, and it's important to do this thing because the longer you delay it, the more injustice will occur because of the way the statute is written,” said Democratic Sen. Ron Latz, minority lead on the Senate Judiciary committee and a co-sponsor of the Senate bill.

The Senate version is authored by GOP Sen. Zach Duckworth, of Lakeville, and has two more Republican co-sponsors. Sen. Warren Limmer, of Maple Grove, the committee's chair, said he has looked over the task force's report, and called the bill interesting, but said he doesn't plan yet to hear the bill in his committee, citing a lack of a consensus from the bill's advocates on whether it should apply retroactively.

“County attorneys don't want to go in a retroactive direction,” he said. “Most of our criminal laws that we write are forward-moving rather than retrograde, so that's a big hang up.”

Pinto's bill was laid over in the House Judiciary committee Tuesday for possible inclusion in an broader bill later in the legislative session.

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