In a verdict met with surprise and relief, a Hennepin County jury convicted Allen “Lance” Scarsella of felony first-degree assault and riot charges Wednesday in the November 2015 shooting of five people at a north Minneapolis protest.
The jury deliberated for seven hours following two weeks of testimony from nearly two dozen witnesses — including surprise testimony from Scarsella and a co-defendant — before returning guilty verdicts on all counts. They watched several videos taken before and after the shooting, including ones of Scarsella making racist comments; and they viewed numerous texts where Scarsella described his intent to kill black people.
Despite that, many in the black community expected to hear “not guilty,” said Jason Sole, the head of the Minneapolis NAACP.
Cameron Clark, one of Scarsella’s shooting victims and Jamar Clark’s cousin, sat in the courtroom Wednesday doubting the jury would come back with guilty verdicts. But as each decision was read, Clark nodded in relief while a few in the courtroom cheered. One woman held up her fist as the jury exited. Scarsella did not appear to react.
“I’m so happy for the four other brothers who were shot,” Clark said. “I’m glad we got justice, but the fight isn’t over.”
Scarsella, 24, was charged with 12 counts of first-degree assault and one count of riot in connection with a Nov. 23, 2015, Black Lives Matter protest.
Along with Scarsella, Nathan Gustavsson, 22, of Hermantown; Daniel Macey, 27, of Pine City, and Joseph Backman, 28, of Eagan stand charged with second-degree riot and aiding an offender. Gustavsson, who took the stand in Scarsella’s defense on Friday, declined to comment on the verdicts. The jurors declined to comment, as did Scarsella’s defense team.
‘Locked and loaded’
Protesters formed the encampment at Minneapolis Police’s Fourth Precinct following the death of Jamar Clark, who was shot and killed in a struggle with police in 2015.
Scarsella and three friends went there that night to livestream the protest. It was a site he had been to a few days earlier, when he and another friend, Julio Suarez, masked their faces and livestreamed themselves driving down to the protest, using racial slurs along the way.
“We are locked and loaded,” Suarez said in a video, holding up a handgun. “We’re going to make the fire rise.”
That video circulated online, causing protesters to become suspicious of anyone who came to the encampment with a mask.
Scarsella and his friends covered their faces when they showed up a few days later. Protesters quickly went up to them and demanded they take off their masks, according to trial testimony. When they refused, the four went north up a street as protesters followed. The pursuit stopped, but then several protesters said they heard someone from Scarsella’s group shout the N-word.
“Me and a group of people started running toward them,” said Wesley Martin, one of the shooting victims.
About a block from where the group of four started, Scarsella opened fire and unloaded his magazine on a group of about seven protesters.
Shot that night were Clark and Martin, along with Teven King, Walter Hoskins and Draper Larkins. King suffered the most serious injuries, requiring emergency surgery after the shooting. The bullet is still inside him after a doctor deemed it too dangerous to remove.
Under questioning by his attorney, Scarsella said he shot in self-defense, arguing that his life and Gustavsson’s were in danger from the oncoming protesters. He said he fired when he thought he saw one of them pull out a knife.
“They were very aggressive, and they were coming after us, and I didn’t know what was going to happen next,” he said.
None of the shooting victims who testified said they saw anyone pull a knife on Scarsella.
Under blistering cross-examination by Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Judith Hawley, Scarsella had little defense for the numerous racist texts he sent out in the year before the shooting. In one he suggested putting a confederate flag on a gun handle to “tempt a chimp to chimp out, that way you can shoot him.”
In another, he suggested a friend go with him to target practice “for when we have to shoot black guys.”
On the day of the shooting, he texted his girlfriend that “smelly brown people” should “just gas themselves, honestly.”
Some of those texts were sent to Brett Levin, who at the time was a Mankato police officer. On the stand, Levin acknowledged getting the texts and responding with similar racist messages of his own.
“How we were talking was more along the lines of locker room talk,” said Levin, who was a Burnsville police officer when he testified. He has since resigned from the force.
Scarsella testified that the texts were jokes between him and friends and that they “weren’t meant to offend anybody, offend any kind of general audience; they weren’t meant to be taken seriously, even by us.”
Scarsella, who has been jailed in lieu of $500,000 bail since the shooting, is scheduled for sentencing March 10. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said he will seek the maximum sentence of nearly 20 years in prison, although he noted that 12 to 17 years would be more likely.
“He deserves every minute he gets,” Freeman said.
Freeman lauded the verdict, calling it the best outcome after prosecutors sought the most serious charges they could against Scarsella and successfully argued for his high bail.
“As I said at the time we charged Mr. Scarsella and his companions, the racist language he used in the videos and on social media is just not acceptable and the actions he took as a result of those racist beliefs were heinous,” Freeman said. “The jury obviously saw it the same way.”
Nekima Levy-Pounds, a civil rights attorney and former Minneapolis NAACP president who was active in the Fourth Precinct occupation and is now a candidate for mayor of Minneapolis, called the verdicts a relief, “especially given our concerns that the racial makeup of the jury did not reflect the diversity of the residents of Hennepin County.”
Although each of the five victims were black, there were no blacks on the mostly white jury.
Sole, who also was involved in the occupation, said he was “very pleased” with the verdict. “I do feel there should have been stronger charges,” he said. “There was premeditation. He could have been charged with first degree attempted murder. I am hoping the victims can find some kind of closure.”
Staff writers Randy Furst, David Chanen, Karen Zamora and Jessie Bekker contributed to this report.