It took more than 35 years to bring first-degree murder charges against two men in the 1970 ambush slaying of St. Paul police officer James Sackett, and another year before both were found guilty in separate trials.
Now it's unclear when Larry L. Clark will be brought to trial a second time, after the Minnesota Supreme Court on Thursday reversed his conviction and ordered a new trial.
"It is very difficult to try a homicide multiple decades after the crime," said Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner.
"We'll be carefully reviewing our options and will determine whether or not we can go forward. .... We're not going to give up easily on something as serious as the murder of a police officer."
The court said the trial judge erred when he failed to instruct the jury that under state law a conviction cannot be based on uncorroborated testimony from an accomplice.
The killing shocked the city when it happened and haunted Sackett's family for decades before Ronald L. Reed and Clark were convicted. The case also reopened old wounds and reignited old tensions between the black community and police during the trials.
Sackett, 27, had been on the force 18 months and was on his first day back after a leave for the birth of his fourth child when he was killed May 22, 1970, by a sniper's bullet outside 859 Hague Av. in the Selby-Dale neighborhood. He and his partner had been lured to the house by a fake medical call about a pregnant woman.
Shortly after the shooting, police arrested Connie Trimble, Reed's girlfriend, and accused her of making the phony call. She was acquitted of first-degree murder in 1972, but until 1994 refused to name Reed as the man she was with when she made the call.
Prosecutors claimed Reed was the mastermind of the crime and witnesses testified that he plotted to kill a white police officer to gain favor with the national leadership of the Black Panthers to entice them to start a chapter in St. Paul.
Lived near scene
The evidence against Clark was far more circumstantial. He lived just a few doors from the crime scene and was seen earlier in the day with Reed, who was carrying a high-powered rifle like the one used to kill Sackett.
When Clark was found guilty, St. Paul NAACP President Nathaniel Khaliq called it the product of "an unjust, unfair and racist process."
The Supreme Court last year affirmed Reed's first-degree murder conviction. But in a 4-1 ruling Thursday, it said that although Clark's attorneys did not ask to have the rule on accomplice testimony included in jury instruction, "reversal of Clark's conviction is necessary ... to ensure fairness and integrity of the judicial process."
Trimble "could theoretically be charged with conspiracy to commit murder," the court said, and "could reasonably be considered an accomplice."
But the court's majority opinion also said evidence at Clark's trial was sufficient to corroborate Trimble's testimony and support the verdicts.
In a 19-page dissent, Justice Alan Page agreed that Clark's conviction should be reversed but disagreed that the court should order a new trial.
Without Trimble's testimony, Page wrote, there was not sufficient evidence to convict.
"I would reverse Clark's conviction outright," he said.
Clark's appellate attorney, Tony Atwal, said he and Clark are happy with the ruling.
"He's pleased with the outcome," Atwal said, "but it doesn't take anything away from what this did to both families."
'Never put case away'
Clark's trial attorney, Connie Iversen, said she's ready to retry the case.
"I never put the case away," she said. "It's still sitting here in boxes.
"We've always felt he was wrongly convicted and there wasn't sufficient evidence. We're tremendously pleased with this decision."
Gaertner was anything but. "Bottom line, Clark received a fair trial and the jury made a just decision," she said. "The court's conclusion to the contrary is disappointing."
Sackett's widow, Jeanette Sackett-Monteon, who was left to care for their young children, told District Judge Gregg Johnson at Clark's sentencing that "life as we planned it was taken away in 1970.
"I watched my children wait by the window ... for their daddy to come home," said Sackett-Monteon. She did not return a phone message left at her home Thursday.
The Supreme Court heard arguments this summer but has not issued a ruling yet on whether to grant a new trial to another man convicted of killing a St. Paul police officer.
Attorneys for Harry J. Evans argued before a five-justice panel in June that a new trial should be ordered because of an alleged racist remark made by a juror in the case and because prosecutors had improper contact with the juror before a hearing called to investigate allegations of misconduct.
Gaertner, who personally prosecuted Evans, argued that there was no misconduct on the juror's part or on prosecutors' part.
Pat Pheifer • 651-298-1551