Karen Cummings was at work this spring when she received a phone call that revived a nightmare from her past and made her heart sink: The man who admitted to fatally shooting her fiancé in 1992 was accidentally released from a Georgia prison and had never served a day of his 25-year Minnesota prison term.
Cummings thought that convicted murderer Knawon A. Conda, 40, was behind bars working on his time and the restitution he owed her. But a mistake by a Ramsey County sheriff's employee coupled with an apparent mistake by a Ramsey County District Court staffer led to Conda's 2007 release from a prison in Georgia, where he had just finished serving 15 years in an unrelated manslaughter case.
"I didn't believe it," Cummings said Friday. "I'm like, 'He's not supposed to be released. He's supposed to be locked up.' "
Conda was supposed to serve his Minnesota sentence upon completing his Georgia term. Instead, he lived as a free man in Chicago, working as a finish welder and uniting with a son he had never met.
Authorities caught up with Conda in July 2013 after a retired St. Paul police officer discovered the mistake. He's now in custody. Conda's case appears to be the first of its kind in Minnesota, said attorneys on both sides, and could set precedent locally.
Friday morning, Conda was back in Ramsey County District Court fighting for his freedom with about two dozen family members present. His dad and cousin testified in court that he had rebuilt his life.
Cummings was there, too, watching the proceedings as she had all those years ago when Conda pleaded guilty in 1995 to shooting her fiancé, Carl A. Ferguson, four times. Ferguson, who was 32, had rented a car to Conda, who was 18 at the time. Conda wanted a refund of his $20, but Ferguson said he didn't have the money. Conda shot Ferguson as he fled from an apartment building in the 300 block of Dayton Avenue.
As Conda's family rallied behind him Friday, having chartered a bus from Chicago to St. Paul, a lone Cummings quietly wiped away tears, reliving the pain of Ferguson's murder and shocked by the unbelievable court case unfolding before her.
"You want to see your son?" Cummings said of Conda after the hearing. "You want to see your grandkids? Carl doesn't get to see his kids. Carl hasn't met his grandkids."
Through his attorney, Melvin Welch, Conda filed motions to withdraw his guilty plea and to dismiss his prison sentence. Ramsey County District Judge Joy Bartscher did not rule on the motions Friday. Bartscher will issue decisions after reviewing summaries that will be submitted by attorneys later this month and in September.
The motions argue that, across the country, courts have granted defendants credit toward their sentence when authorities were at fault for releasing someone prematurely. Welch also argued that Conda's reintegration into society, absence of additional convictions and attempt to address the Minnesota sentence should compel the court to grant his motions.
"They can't just say, 'We'll let you float and we'll come get you when we do,' " Welch said after the hearing. "He got out. He got a job. He got a home."
Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Kaarin Long and Cummings were unmoved.
"It's our position that this individual was aware of what his sentence should have been, and that he tried to benefit from the state's mistake, the court's mistake," Long said after the hearing.
Long also noted that Conda has been arrested three separate times in Chicago for domestic battery. He was not charged in any of the cases.
Conda testified Friday that he asked Georgia authorities in 2007 about his Minnesota sentence, and was informed that Ramsey County authorities said he could go free.
"I was young and I was uneducated," Conda said of his confusion.
Conda explained that when he was sentenced for second-degree murder in Ramsey County on Oct. 5, 1995, he knew that he'd have to serve about 16 years before being eligible for parole.
Long pressed Conda during cross-examination about how he could so lucidly recall that information while forgetting that it was noted that his Minnesota term was consecutive to his Georgia term.
"You don't remember the next sentence?" Long asked.
"No ma'am," Conda said.
A transcript of Conda's sentencing shows that "consecutive" or "consecutively" were used nine times.
Linda Segl, a clerical supervisor at the Ramsey County sheriff's warrants office, testified Friday that in 2007 she informed Georgia authorities that they could release Conda. Segl said that Conda's case showed up as "archived" in the court computer system. That typically meant that the case was closed with no pending action, she testified.
But the case was so serious, she said, that she contacted someone at Ramsey County District Court who confirmed that there was no detainer on Conda, meaning he could be set free. Segl could not recall the staffer's name.
Beau Berentson, a spokesman for the state court administrator's office, said it's unclear whether a court staffer played a role in Conda's release, and that it is under investigation.
For Cummings, the clerical mistake is forgivable. But Conda's refusal to accept his sentence rubs her raw. Ferguson was her high school sweetheart, a man who worked two jobs and raised her three kids as if they were his own.
"I have to go through all of this again," Cummings said. "Why? I just want what's fair so we can put this behind us."
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