State of Minnesota v. Thomas Lee Fairbanks. MN criminal law.
Thomas Lee Fairbanks was convicted of the February 18, 2009, murder of Mahnomen County Deputy Sheriff Christopher Lee Dewey. On the night of the murder, Fairbanks had been drinking with acquaintance Daniel Curt Vernier at his home in Mahnomen and at the nearby Shooting Star Casino. After returning to Faribanks' home, Fairbanks took a 9-millimeter pistol and fired several shots inside and outside the home. Police came to twice to investigate the gunfire.
At about seven the next morning, the two went to a neighbor's house to get more alcohol and elude the police. Fairbanks took the gun with him. When he spotted Deputy Dewey, Fairbanks shot him in the head and abdomen without provocation. Deputy Dewey was transported to the hospital, and subsequently airlifted to a hospital in Fargo.
More police arrived and surrounded Fairbanks' home, where the two were holed up. Shots were heard from inside the trailer. Fairbanks fell asleep, at which time Vernier found the modicum of common sense to take the gun and go outside to surrender. The unarmed Fairbanks ultimately surrendered to police without further incident. He was charged with attempted murder and other felony charges.
Fairbanks moved for a change of venue out of Mahnomen County. The trial court agreed, and transferred the case to Polk County. Polk County, however, was not one of the counties that the defendant had suggested, and he argued that Polk County was also an improper venue. He argued that he was Native American, and that Polk County had a low percentage of Native Americans.
While the case was still pending, Deputy Dewey's condition worsened, and he ultimately went into hospice care. He died on August 9, 2010, about 18 months after the shooting. Fairbanks was then indicted for first-degree murder of a police officer.
Prior to trial, the defendant moved to suppress certain photographic evidence. In particular, he moved to exclude autopsy photos and "spark of life" photos. One of the pictures compared Deputy Dewey's upper body and face before the shooting to the autopsy photo. The trial court denied this motion and allowed the photos into evidence. The pictures were shown during the prosecution's opening statement. The defendant's attorney again objected, but the use of the photos was allowed.
Fairbanks testified at trial. He admitted to the shooting, but testified that he was "very intoxicated and on drugs" and for that reason was not able to form the requisite intent. The jury didn't buy it, and found him guilty. The trial court sentenced him to the mandatory term of life in prison without the possibility of release. Fairbanks the appealed the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court first examined the change of venue. Fairbanks first argued that the main concern of pretrial publicity was not cured by moving the trial a mere 55 miles. He also argued that the demographics of Polk County had a very small Native American population. Mahnomen County is 40% Native American, but Polk County is only 2%.
On the issue of pretrial publicity, the court first pointed out that the defendant must establish that the publicity was prejudicial. In this case, they concluded that he had not done so. Most of the publicity was factual, the court pointed out. The defendant showed 119 articles in Polk County, but most of them were more than 11 months before the trial. The ones closer to trial were almost all mere reporting of the facts of the case. The jury was also carefully questioned, and the court concluded that this further eliminated any possibility of unfair prejudice. Since there was no evidence of actual prejudice, the court rejected this first argument.
On the question of racial demographics, the Supreme Court similarly concluded that there was no error. The Supreme Court carefully considered the facts of the case and concluded that the trial court had made a proper decision.
Next, the defendant argued that the common-law "year and a day" rule should have barred his prosecution for murder. This is an ancient English rule which states that a defendant cannot be convicted of murder unless the victim dies within a year and a day of the act.
One case applying this rule is State v. Dailey, 134 N.E. 481, 20 A.L.R. 1004 (Ind. 1922). The Annotation following this case, which can also be found at the Google Books link, contains more cases construing this rule. The history of this rule is also discussed in Rogers v. Tennessee, 532 U.S. 451 (2001), which the Minnesota Supreme Court cited in its opinion. However, the Minnesota Supreme Court pointed out that this rule has never been applied in any Minnesota case, and there is no Minnesota precedent or statute even acknowledging this rule.
The Minnesota Supreme Court concluded the even if this rule existed in Minnesota at common law, it was abolished in 1963 when the Minnesota criminal code was enacted. Since at least 1963, the Minnesota Statute has stated that "indictments or complaints for any crime resulting in the death of the victim may be found or made at any time after the death of the person killed." The Supreme Court held that this language repealed the "year and a day" rule, even assuming that it had existed in Minnesota prior to 1963. The murder statute itself applies to anyone who "causes the death," and the Court held that this is unambiguous, and does not impose any time limit. For these reasons, the Court held that the "year and a day" rule has no application in Minnesota.
Finally, the court examined the admission of the photographs. Photos are generally admissible if they are accurate and relate to a material issue in the case. "Spark of life" photos are ones that show the victim before the injury occurred, and these are generally admissible.
The court agreed that the autopsy photos were graphic. However, they were accurately supported by the expert testimony regarding the autopsy. Therefore, the Supreme Court concluded that the trial court had not abused its discretion in admitting them.
Finally, the court examined the sufficiency of the evidence on one of the many counts against the defendant. On this count, the charge of first-degree assault on a police officer from one of the many shots fired. The Supreme Court carefully considered the evidence and concluded that the shot in question was actually fired before the police arrived. Therefore, the conviction with respect to this shot was reversed.
On the remaining counts, however, including the conviction of first-degree murder, the Supreme Court affirmed.
No. A11-2164 (Minn. Feb. 5, 2014).
Please see the original opinion for the court's exact language.
Richard P. Clem is an attorney and continuing legal education (CLE) provider in Minnesota. He has been in private practice in the Twin Cities for 25 years. He has a J.D., cum laude, from Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul and a B.A. in History from the University of Minnesota. His reported cases include: Asociacion Nacional de Pescadores a Pequena Escala o Artesanales de Colombia v. Dow Quimica de Colombia, 988 F.2d 559, rehearing denied, 5 F.3d 530 (5th Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1041 (1994); LaMott v. Apple Valley Health Care Center, 465 N.W.2d 585 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991); Abo el Ela v. State, 468 N.W.2d 580 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991).
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