A St. Paul man tried to plead guilty Friday in the fatal shooting of a law clerk above W.A. Frost & Company, but was denied because of legal technicalities.
Ryan D. Petersen, 37, attempted to enter a straight plea to second-degree murder with intent at an omnibus hearing in Ramsey County District Court. But Rick Dusterhoft, the Ramsey County attorney’s criminal division director, had a surprise that derailed the effort: an amended criminal complaint with two new charges that also upgraded the original charge to first-degree murder.
Dusterhoft and Petersen’s attorney, Gary Wolf, squared off in a tense battle of case law, and both argued that the Minnesota rules of criminal procedure should work in their favor.
Dusterhoft said Petersen couldn’t plead guilty because he hadn’t had a hearing yet on the new charges. Wolf argued that Friday’s omnibus hearing was on the original count, and such hearings are appropriate venues for guilty pleas.
“We came here in good faith to plead guilty,” Wolf said. “We’re not playing games here.”
Petersen is charged with shooting Chase Passauer, 23, of Minneapolis, six times in the stomach on April 7 at North Star Criminal Defense, which is on the second floor of the Dacotah Building in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood.
Petersen had hired one of the firm’s attorneys to represent him in a criminal case, grew unhappy with his service and had fired him via text message earlier that day. Authorities said that when Petersen couldn’t reach the attorney, who was in court, Petersen went to the law firm, where he encountered Passauer.
Petersen’s hearing was originally scheduled for May 9, and was rescheduled to Friday just a few days ago. Ramsey County District Judge Gary Bastian was displeased to find himself in the middle of an academic legal battle during what is typically an uneventful, early hearing in a criminal case.
“I find it somewhat disturbing that there was no notice of what was going to happen today,” Bastian said.
The judge rejected Petersen’s guilty plea, and set a May 20 hearing on the amended charges, which include one count each of second-degree murder with intent and possession of a firearm by an ineligible person.
Bastian and the attorneys had discussed the issues privately in chambers before airing them in open court before a row of Passauer’s supporters, who left the proceeding without comment.
Wolf argued that Minnesota criminal procedure requires that a grand jury convene to consider first-degree murder charges within 14 days of the “Rule 8” hearing — where a defendant is advised of his or her rights. Wolf said that hearing was on April 11 in Petersen’s case, and that the deadline has passed.
There was also debate about whether Friday’s hearing was an omnibus hearing, or a Rule 8 hearing.
The Ramsey County attorney’s office still needs to convene a grand jury to decide whether the amended first-degree murder count can be charged. Dusterhoft argued that his office has 14 days from Friday.
It’s not unusual but neither is it common to see first-degree murder added to a case before a grand jury has made the determination. Dusterhoft said after the hearing that he added the charge “out of an abundance of caution.”
“I didn’t expect that,” Dusterhoft said of Petersen’s guilty plea. “It was an attempt to prevent [an indictment on first-degree murder].”
Dusterhoft and Wolf said neither had an inkling of the other’s planned strategies, and that there had been no plea negotiations between them. The threat of pursuing first-degree murder is sometimes leveraged in such negotiations to compel a guilty plea.
Wolf said after the hearing that if a grand jury returns a first-degree murder indictment, he will ask a state judge to dismiss the count, and will appeal to the state Supreme Court if necessary.
“It’s the right thing to do, and he knows that,” Wolf said of his client’s decision to plead guilty.