For the jury in Damin Lee Shufford’s murder trial, it was a difficult moment made even harder by the comments of a courtroom deputy.
The Hennepin County District Court jurors were walking back to the jury room after making the agonizing decision to acquit Shufford in the mid-July trial when the deputy felt compelled to tell them that she was sure they had erred.
Shufford was guilty of killing that man in a New Hope parking lot, she said. She knew this, she told them, because a police officer had told her so.
The deputy’s words moved some jurors to tears. Later, they notified the judge about the deputy’s scolding, said Jeff Ward, one of Shufford’s public defenders.
The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the incident for possible disciplinary action, spokeswoman Jennifer Johnson said. She declined to say more, citing labor law and data practice policies.
Ward called the deputy’s comments the most outrageous breach of duty he has seen in his long career.
“The jury was very courageous,” he said. “But they felt like fools after what the deputy did. I wonder how many other times a deputy could have said that to a jury? It’s appalling.”
Courtroom deputies’ duties include providing security and being a point of contact for jurors during deliberations. It’s unclear if the deputy in question had been assigned to the Shufford jury through the entire two-week trial.
The incident underscores the rarity of acquittals in first-degree murder trials, as well as the controversies and complexities that police, prosecutors and defense attorneys face in a case involving questionable witnesses.
A difficult investigation
Shufford, 30, was charged with first-degree murder and robbery in the June 2013 shooting death of Kent Walker Jr., 59, of Fridley. Walker’s body was found inside his car outside Crystal Towers Apartments, at 7600 Bass Lake Road, the day after residents said they heard popping noises outside overnight.
Six weeks later, investigators caught a break when St. Louis Park police stopped a car and confiscated a revolver resting between a man’s legs. Forensic tests revealed that the gun was the one used in Walker’s killing. Shufford’s DNA was found on a shell casing linked to the gun, but not the weapon itself.
According to the charges, several witnesses told police that Shufford had a gun and said he was going to rob somebody. Witnesses also said they heard shots and that Shufford later said he had to “slump” a man who tried to grab his gun. And when Shufford and another man returned to Walker’s car to take his money, Shufford said Walker wasn’t going to wake up because “I shot the man,” the charges say.
In a brief filed before the trial, the prosecution indicated that it would rely heavily on its own witnesses. Jane Imholte, Shufford’s other public defender, said she believed they had a shot at acquittal because of the lack of forensic and physical evidence and because there was no confession from Shufford. And the witnesses, who were gang members, were shown to be not credible during cross-examination, she said.
“The witnesses lied to the police before giving them our client’s name,” Ward said. “When police were done interviewing those guys, they probably believed Shufford was their guy. Same with the prosecution. But he was a completely innocent victim.”
Before Shufford’s acquittal, Adaiah Townsend, 20, who was also charged with first-degree murder in the case, pleaded guilty to being an accomplice after the fact. He testified against Shufford and is now awaiting a possible eight-year sentence.
New Hope Police Chief Tim Fournier said his investigators “did an outstanding job of taking a homicide with completely unknown suspects and circumstances” and achieving two arrests in the case within four months.
“A grand jury believed we had the person responsible for Mr. Walker’s death,” Fournier said. “We feel for his family, because it’s our job to get justice.”
The idea that police always find the right person to be charged is “what we face every time in court,” Ward said.
“The presumption is that Shufford did something, or he wouldn’t be there in court,” he said. “You hope you have the opportunity to level the playing field. As public defenders, you are always outmanned with resources.”
He praised Shufford’s legal team, including law clerk Lindsay Schwab and paralegal Emily Wadley for digging up new information on the prosecution’s witnesses through the Internet.
Ward and Imholte praised prosecutors Mark Griffin and Sarah Vokes, saying they did a good job of presenting the evidence they were given.
But juries want hard evidence, Imholte said. “The strength of the case was the lawyers, and the weakness was their witnesses,” she said.
On July 18, the jury deliberated three hours before acquitting Shufford. He still faces a felony burglary charge unrelated to Walker’s death.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said his office respects the jury and the job it did. The prosecution’s obligation is to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, he said.
“In this case, the jury believed we didn’t do so and we accept,” he said. “However, we still believe Shufford is guilty.”
Prosecutors had it tough — they didn’t have enough forensic evidence and their witnesses weren’t “members of the church choir,” he said.
“Our standards are high for charging,” Freeman said. “That’s one reason why we get guilty pleas and convictions in 90 percent of our cases.”
Acquittals in murder cases are unusual, and it’s a big deal to get one, but the deputy’s comments took some of the glow off the victory, Imholte said. The attorneys picked a good jury, one that Ward said he sensed “would do the right thing in this case.”
“And they did,” he said. “They followed the law and did exactly what they should have done.”