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High court affirms most verdicts in Mahnomen County deputy's death

  • Article by: AMY FORLITI
  • Associated Press
  • February 5, 2014 - 6:24 PM

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday affirmed all but one of the guilty verdicts — including the most serious conviction of first-degree murder — against a man who admitted to shooting Mahnomen County Sheriff's Deputy Christopher Dewey in 2009.

Dewey died about 18 months after he was shot by Thomas Lee Fairbanks, who authorities say fired at Dewey after a night of drinking and then engaged in a standoff with police. At trial, Fairbanks admitted he shot Dewey, but said he was drunk and high so there was no intent.

A jury found Fairbanks, 37, guilty of multiple counts, including first-degree murder of a peace officer and four counts of first-degree assault, stemming from shots fired during the standoff. Fairbanks received a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole on the murder count.

Fairbanks appealed on several grounds, but the Supreme Court rejected most of his arguments. Defense attorney Theodora Gaitas said in an email she had no comment on the decision.

Mahnomen County Sheriff Doug Krier said it's been nearly five years since Dewey, 27, was shot, and it's hard to believe the appeals process is finally over.

"It was senseless. There was really no reason for it," he said of Dewey's death. "One of the things I wanted to know was why — which was an answer I never got."

On the morning of Feb. 18, 2009, Fairbanks had just spent a night drinking and firing shots from his pistol when he and a friend went to a neighbor's house to get more alcohol. Dewey was walking toward the pair when Fairbanks shot him without provocation, hitting Dewey in the head and abdomen, according to court documents.

Fairbanks and his friend went to Fairbanks' trailer home and kept police at bay for the next several hours until Fairbanks eventually surrendered.

Gaitas challenged the first-degree assault convictions stemming from the standoff, saying evidence that Fairbanks shot at police was purely circumstantial.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday reversed one first-degree assault conviction, saying for that count alone, there wasn't enough evidence to show Fairbanks fired at Mahnomen County sheriff's deputies.

"The two deputies who heard shots were unable to tell if they were the target," Justice David Lillehaug wrote. "... In other words, the State relied on purely circumstantial evidence to prove that Fairbanks fired toward the squad car."

The other first-degree assault convictions were affirmed. In those counts three White Earth tribal police officers on another side of Fairbanks' trailer said they heard a bullet fly by their heads and strike a building behind them.

The Supreme Court rejected other issues raised by the defense.

Among them, the justices found that the district court did not abuse its discretion when it changed the trial's venue at the defense's request, but moved it to a county the defense objected to. The Supreme Court said Fairbanks offered nothing that showed publicity affected jurors.

Wednesday's decision won't affect Fairbanks' sentence because he is already serving life with no parole. The Department of Corrections lists him as incarcerated but not in a DOC facility. His attorney said his location is confidential.

Mahnomen County Attorney Darlene Rivera said citizens are glad the case was upheld, and Dewey's death was a tremendous loss.

"He was a younger fella, so he had a special bond with the youth in this area," she said. "We lost a lot when we lost him because he was very actively involved with the community."

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