Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said publicly Wednesday that he disagrees with a decision by Hennepin County's top prosecutor to offer a juvenile plea deal rather than seek a conviction in adult court for two minors suspected of killing a 23-year-old woman during a Brooklyn Park home invasion last fall.

At a community gathering to discuss the ongoing prosecution for the murder of Zaria McKeever, Ellison pushed back on Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty's decision to prosecute the teenage brothers, ages 15 and 17, as juveniles.

Prosecutors originally moved to certify the teens as adults so they could stand trial for second-degree murder alongside Erick Haynes, the 22-year-old man suspected of orchestrating the attack. But in February, Moriarty abruptly changed course, offering the boys a plea deal that would spare them a lengthy adult prison sentence in exchange for their testimony against Haynes. One of the boys accepted a deal last month that will result in a maximum two-year sentence in a juvenile facility, rather than a lengthy prison sentence.

The decision came as a shock to members of McKeever's family, who sought the harshest possible penalty for teenagers they viewed as equally culpable in the young mother's death. For weeks they've called for Ellison to take over the prosecution.

Ellison did not confirm that he would do so, but he told the assembled group inside Shiloh Temple in north Minneapolis that the case should be handled differently — placing him publicly at odds with Moriarty, his longtime friend and ally.

"If the matter is handled properly it can aid in the very slow, difficult healing process of the family — if the case is handled properly," he said. "I agree with the family and the community that the disposition the county attorney's proposed for this juvenile who was the shooter in this heinous crime is inappropriate."

A woman in the audience let out a sigh and the crowd erupted in applause in response.

"This proposed disposition is far outside the community's expectations. It does not factor in victim impact and community impact," Ellison continued, pushing back on research on adolescent brain development often cited by Moriarty that suggests a child's mind is not fully formed until age 25.

"And I think it does not actually adequately address an issue of rehabilitation for the juvenile, because if the juvenile is being given [a 24-month sentence] because of an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, that prefrontal cortex will not be developed in two years. So it doesn't make sense."

The case stems from a break-in during the early morning hours of Nov. 8, 2022. According to the charges, two teenage boys kicked in the door of McKeever's Brooklyn Park apartment at the behest of her jealous ex-boyfriend. The teenage brothers confronted her with a borrowed handgun — the younger one allegedly firing five rounds that proved fatal.

The older boy, John Kamara, accepted that deal last month. He will serve 18 to 24 months at the juvenile correctional facility in Red Wing before being released on extended probation. Violating the terms of his probation could trigger an immediate trip to adult prison for a sentence of up to 12 years.

The younger brother, now 16, is expected to appear in court for his plea hearing Friday morning. Juvenile court proceedings for those under 16 years old at the time of their felony offense are not open to the public.

In response to Ellison's comments, the Hennepin County Attorney's Office released a statement acknowledging the continued pain felt by McKeever's family but defended its handling of the case.

"Like prosecutors across the state, we respect the right of anyone to disagree with our decisions — which for every county attorney is inevitable," said spokesman Nick Kimball, noting that it's their responsibility to reach "a just outcome." We know that the Attorney General wants retribution against this 15-year-old, but we believe our request for an initial juvenile sentence, along with the potential for a long adult prison sentence, gives us the best chance to protect public safety by investing in rehabilitation while still having accountability."

Ellison said he thinks of the McKeever family being back in the community with the juvenile offender. "There is a very real chance that one day the McKeever family members ... will be standing in line at Target with this person, which will retraumatize them."

Ellison said Wednesday that although he has not confirmed he will take over the case, there are ongoing conversations and multiple players involved, including the Minnesota County Attorneys Association.

During an association meeting late last month, members unanimously voted in favor of a resolution urging Ellison not to ask Gov. Tim Walz to exercise his statutory authority to intervene in the case, according to two sources with knowledge of the proceedings.

The board's decision was largely based on fear of setting a bad precedent that would allow state officials to take over their cases whenever they disagreed.

Robert Small, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, declined to comment on the meeting.

It's rare for the attorney general to take a case from any county attorney, which can only be done at the request of the county attorney. Even more rare is for the governor to step in and demand the attorney general take over.

Typically, cases change hands like this during cases involving police killings. Ellison took over the Derek Chauvin case at the request of Moriarty's predecessor, Mike Freeman. He also handled the prosecution of ex-cop Kim Potter.

A governor has stepped in once in modern history to request the attorney general take over prosecution from a county attorney, in a criminal sexual conduct case in Crow Wing County in the 1990s.

Ellison said he is watching the case diligently, while there is much behind-the-scenes activity.

"I cannot possibly take this more seriously," he said, adding that in the past several weeks nothing has taken up more of his time, even with a major ongoing trial. Minnesota is the first state to take e-cigarette maker Juul to trial for targeting youth.

Several law enforcement officials joined Ellison at the event Wednesday, where Brooklyn Park Police Chief Mark Bruley expressed concerns that such a lenient sentence would send a dangerous message to troubled youth who reach for guns to settle petty feuds.

"I'm sorry, the system is broken," he said. "If we can't hold murderers accountable, what are we telling the rest of the children?"

Just before the event began, Ellison greeted Bruley and another officer inside the church, extending his hand.

"This is outrageous," he told them.