Danielle Jelinek died more than two years ago. Now, months after its first delay, the trial in her death will wait longer still.
Attorneys are wrangling over fresh legal issues in the trial of Aaron Schnagl, who is charged with third-degree murder in Jelinek’s 2013 death.
Jury selection in Chisago County District Court was halted just as it began last week.
The key issue stems from the revelation of new statements from a witness questioned early in the investigation of Jelinek’s five-month disappearance and death.
The statements to state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigators were discovered by prosecutors and disclosed to Schnagl’s defense attorney, Melvin Welch, just days before the trial was to start on June 15. Court rules require prosecutors to turn over all evidence that may aid in an accused criminal’s defense.
One of the prosecutors, Assistant County Attorney Nicholas Hydukovich, argued that the witness is a peripheral figure in the case, and that his statements — while they hadn’t been previously disclosed among reams of other evidence — were provided in a sufficiently timely manner. The late disclosure was unintended, he added, saying that Schnagl’s rights to an adequate defense were not violated.
Welch, however, countered that the late disclosure hurt what will be a central defense argument: that another perpetrator, described by this new witness as a partner with Schnagl in dealing cocaine, was responsible for providing the drugs that killed her.
The withholding of the statements, Welch added, was deliberate and should have been shared with the grand jury that indicted Schnagl.
The new witness closely observed the drug dealings of Schnagl and his purported partner.
Hydukovich said the witness’ statements would not have affected the grand jury’s decision to indict Schnagl.
In addition, the defense’s plan to argue that an alternative perpetrator was responsible for providing the drugs — and to call witnesses supporting that claim — could open new arguments related to rulings made by District Court Judge Todd Schoffelman setting the parameters of testimony and evidence that the jury will hear in the case. Schoffelman ordered that the jury trial be postponed.
The judge, for example, ruled to exclude a statement Schnagl made to a cellmate that he would kill Jelinek and put her body in a river.
The judge found that evidence of the threat was not convincing, and that it would do more to inflame jurors than support the legal case, but prosecutors are working to find stronger corroboration.
The trial originally was to have begun in March, but was put off until this month.
Part of the delay is because of the prosecution of Schnagl’s drug case stemming from the investigation into Jelinek’s death.
Schnagl, 30, was sentenced to 78 months in prison after he pleaded guilty to a charge of second-degree cocaine possession.
As part of a plea agreement, two lesser charges of possessing and selling marijuana were dismissed.
That sentence runs concurrently with an 86-month jail term to which Schnagl had been sentenced after another drug conviction in Anoka County. In that 2006 case, Schnagl had been sentenced to 30 years of probation, which the Chisago County charges violated. He has been incarcerated ever since, due for release in mid-2017.
Jelinek’s family first reported her missing on Dec. 9, 2012, when she hadn’t made her daily call checking in.
Jelinek, 27, who grew up in Cottage Grove and lived in Oakdale, worked as a manager at the Wells Fargo branch in Maplewood and was just buying her first house. She had last spoken to her sister the previous afternoon. Jelinek said she was going to see a girlfriend, but instead went to meet Schnagl.
Her body was found the following May in a shallow slough a quarter-mile west of Schnagl’s residence in the 11200 block of 261st Street in Chisago Lake Township.
Schnagl was indicted on a third-degree murder charge in December 2013, accused of causing Jelinek’s death by providing her with the illegal drugs — in this case, cocaine — that killed her, even if it was unintentional. An autopsy showed cocaine and alcohol in her system, but made no conclusions about the cause and manner of her death, one of the case’s several focal points.