A grand jury has cleared the four police officers involved in the deadly shooting of a couple nearly a year ago on Hwy. 212 in Eden Prairie, ending the county’s lengthy process in the high-profile case.
The Hennepin County grand jury’s decision, announced Friday, means the officers involved in the Feb. 7 shooting that killed Matthew Serbus, 36, originally of Maple Grove, and Dawn Pfister, 34, of Elkhorn, Wis., won’t be indicted.
The decision isn’t unusual. A Star Tribune review last April of state records found that law enforcement’s use of deadly force was justified in 82 of 83 shootings in Minnesota in the past 10 years.
But Pfister’s family plans to fight the decision, convinced she shouldn’t have been shot because she was initially reported to be a hostage.
“You can’t shoot the hostage; she tries to obey the police commands and gets down on the ground and they point a rifle on her chest and shoot her,” said Minneapolis attorney Robert Bennett, who is representing Pfister’s family. “It’s just ridiculous.”
State statutes justify the use of deadly force by law enforcement to protect the officer or someone else from death or great bodily harm. The grand jury’s “no bill” decision, announced by County Attorney Mike Freeman without comment, clears Chaska police Sgt. Brady Juell, Chaska police officer Trent Wurtz, State Patrol trooper Mark Lund and Carver County Sheriff’s Cpl. Nathan Mueller.
Grand juries don’t determine guilt or innocence, but rather whether there is evidence of probable cause that a crime was committed. In Minnesota, grand juries consist of up to 23 randomly selected people; an indictment requires 12 members to agree.
“Their decision is not ‘did the police do it right?’ ” former Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner said. “Their job is to decide if there is sufficient evidence if a crime occurred. And that is a much narrower decision.”
High-profile cases like Ferguson, Mo., and Friday’s Hwy. 212 decision are reminders, Gaertner said, of police and grand juries’ difficult roles.
“[Police] need to make split-second decisions with people’s lives in their hands, including their own,” she said. “And that decision ends up being scrutinized by the public, the press and the grand jury. And that isn’t easy.”
Chase ends in shots fired
The Feb. 7 incident unfolded in a matter of minutes.
About 7:30 a.m., police responded to a call of a car driving erratically and at high speeds after rear-ending a car. In a stolen car from Colorado, Serbus and Pfister then led police on a high-speed chase from Chaska to Eden Prairie in the middle of the morning rush hour. After stop sticks punctured the car’s tires, it crashed.
According to an investigation by the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Serbus emerged from the car and “produced a knife,” ignoring repeated commands to drop it. After officers fired at him, the BCA said, Pfister “took possession” of the knife, and was shot.
The investigation didn’t say where the couple were shot, or how far away they were from officers, only that they died of multiple gunshot wounds. Law enforcement experts say police learn in training that a knife-wielding person less than 21 feet away can stab an officer before they can get a gun out of a holster.
Scanner reports initially called Pfister a hostage. Bennett said Friday that she was sitting on the ground when Serbus held her with the knife before they both were shot.
“I just can’t believe it,” Bennett said. “I thought we had more integrity around here, but I guess not. This is unbelievable. It’s a dark day for justice.”
In Wisconsin, Pfister’s friends and family, including her two young children, released balloons outside a church last week on what would have been her 35th birthday. In Texas, her father and stepmother did volunteer work in her honor.
“Big-time disappointment,” Pfister’s stepmother, Bridget Johnson, said Friday. “We’ve waited 10 months for a ‘no’ verdict? That’s kind of sad.”
A lengthy case
Friends say the couple returned to Minnesota to face criminal charges of trying to steal a car from a Rochester car dealership last January. Serbus had an extensive criminal record dating to at least 1999.
More than three months after the incident, on May 28, the BCA finished its investigation, sending its findings to the county to determine if the case should be sent to a grand jury. For more than 10 months, no information was released. Grand jury proceedings are secret and protected by law.
That’s an unusually long time for similar cases. Over the past two years, investigators and grand juries wrapped up their work in other officer-involved shootings within five months or so.
In September 2013, a grand jury cleared officers about four months after the May 2013 Minneapolis officer-involved shooting that killed Terrance Franklin. It took about five months for authorities to investigate and a grand jury to clear officers involved in an October 2013 officer-involved shooting in Minnetonka that killed 27-year-old Michael Tray. And it took nearly six months after a November 2013 shooting in Orono for authorities to finish investigating and a grand jury to clear the officers who shot and killed Ted Hoffstrom, 30, after he killed an Orono doctor.
So far this year, there have been 18 officer-involved shootings in Minnesota that have been reported to the BCA, including a high-speed police chase on Interstate 694 on Wednesday that ended in the fatal shooting of a murder suspect who investigators said charged at officers with a knife. In 2013, 22 officer-involved shootings resulted in eight deaths and in 2012, 27 officer-involved shootings statewide left eight dead.