Nearly two decades ago a robber shot 55-year-old Randy Sherer to death in his family's flower shop in north Minneapolis. The teenager convicted of the crime is now a man who has spent most of his life in prison, insisting he is innocent.

There was no physical evidence tethering Marvin Haynes, 35, to the shots that killed Sherer on May 16, 2004. The only person who saw everything unfold — Cynthia McDermid, Sherer's sister and coworker — died in 2020.

Now the Great North Innocence Project, which investigates potential wrongful convictions, has taken up Haynes' case. They criticize how Haynes was first solidified as a suspect, via photo and live lineups conducted in questionable ways that still trouble one of the original detectives. And they also have affidavits from trial witnesses who have since recanted.

"Problems with faulty eyewitness IDs is one of the major themes we focus on in our work … and this one, there's just so many problems that if you know what you're looking for, they jump off the page at you," said Innocence Project attorney Andrew Markquart.

Marvin did not match the description eyewitnesses gave in obvious ways, he notes. "That ... is a screaming red flag."

The Innocence Project faces resistance from former prosecutor Mike Furnstahl, who stands by Haynes' conviction.

His story didn't hold up," Furnstahl said. "He said things like he didn't even know where the flower shop was ... but we had reports he had been arrested nearby there and stuff like that."

In mid-December the Innocence Project submitted the Haynes case to the Minnesota Attorney General Office's Conviction Review Unit. Formed in 2020, it has helped overturn one murder conviction.

The office does not comment on individual applications, but verified the queue is hundreds long and staff are few. It takes the unit roughly 90 days to decide whether to review a case.

In Minnesota the procedure for exoneration is a petition for postconviction relief. The best-case scenario for the Innocence Project would be for Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty to support it.

Hennepin County Attorney spokesperson Nick Kimball confirmed receiving a copy of Haynes' application.

"We want the community to trust that our office is seeking justice on their behalf. Part of earning that trust is prosecuting serious cases while making sure we prosecute the right person," Kimball said.

Sherer died without children. His six siblings have passed away.

The closest surviving Sherer relative reached for comment was Barbara Sherer, widow of the victim's brother and flower shop owner Jerry. She had not known Haynes' conviction was in doubt, and questioned how authorities could have gotten the wrong man if her sister-in-law identified the shooter.

Gunshots explode

On May 16, 2004, siblings Randy Sherer and Cynthia McDermid were working at Jerry's Flower Shop at North 33rd and Lyndale Avenues when a young man walked in saying he wanted flowers for his mother. McDermid began to prepare a bouquet. At one point she looked up into the barrel of a silver revolver.

The man demanded money and the security tapes. Sherer emerged from the back of the store, saying there was no money. As the man turned the gun toward her brother, McDermid fled. Two gunshots exploded behind her.

According to police reports, McDermid described the shooter as a Black male, thin, medium or dark-skinned, nearly six feet tall, 180 pounds, with "close-cropped" hair.

The description was the best information police had at first. There were no tapes in the security cameras and no complete fingerprints. Police dogs lost a scent in a nearby alley. The weapon was never found.

Police showed McDermid a photo lineup. With 75% to 80% certainty, according to police reports, she chose a man who matched her description but had an alibi: He'd been visiting family in South Dakota.

In the early 2000s, Minneapolis was seeking stability following years of record gun violence. Star Tribune articles at the time captured northside residents' and business owners' heightened anxieties of armed robbery and errant bullets.

An outpouring of support, including sympathies from Black civil rights leaders, wasn't enough to keep Jerry's Flower Shop open. Jerry Sherer decided he couldn't risk any more relatives. Then-Council Member Don Samuels lamented the closing as a "tangible representation of the effects of violence against the community."

An old mugshot

Two days after the murder, Sgt. Michael Keefe got an anonymous tip the shooter was "Little Marvin."

At the same time, a middle schooler named Ravi Seeley came forward to say he had been walking near the flower shop when he heard a gunshot and saw a man run out. From about 35 feet away, Seeley described him as a slender Black male with a natural haircut, possibly faded on the sides.

Police soon arrested Marvin Haynes, then 16, for missing a court appearance for violating curfew. His booking photo shows him with a long afro and thin mustache. He was 5 feet 7 inches tall and 130 pounds.

Later that afternoon, investigators presented McDermid and Seeley photo lineups. Instead of using Haynes' mugshot with the long hair taken hours earlier, they substituted a two-year-old photo of him with short, close-cropped hair. Both McDermid and Seeley ultimately picked Haynes.

Detectives Sgt. Keefe and Dave Mattson then arranged an in-person lineup. Five young men — different from those in the photo lineup — acted as fillers. Haynes was the only person in both.

Seeley gasped and said, "He looks like who I saw," according to police reports. McDermid jumped up from her chair. But as she studied Haynes longer, she faltered, saying she was traumatized and beginning to blend all the young men together.

That two strangers identified the same person underpinned prosecutor Mike Furnstahl's rationalization of Haynes' guilt.

"The identification by the sister was shaky, but in another sense, it was very powerful," Furnstahl, now retired, recalled in an interview with the Star Tribune. "She wanted to be 100% certain so she didn't say definitively [Haynes] was it, but she had those physical reactions."

On the witness stand, Seeley testified that he whispered uncertainty about picking Haynes to detective Mattson. The detective, who also took the stand, denied hearing such comments. McDermid's confidence inflated with time. At trial she said there was, "no doubt" Haynes was the shooter.

Last year, 34-year-old Seeley signed an affidavit saying that at age 14 police pressured him to make an identification and to stick with it. They convinced him, "that I could get in trouble if I was not helpful." In fact, he never had a clear view of the shooter's face, Seeley said.

Nancy K. Steblay, professor emeritus of psychology at Augsburg University, reviewed Haynes' evidence for the Innocence Project. Memory is malleable, she wrote in her report, with mistaken eyewitness identification faulted for nearly 80% of wrongful convictions in the first 200 cases overturned by DNA evidence.

Steblay noted "significant" problems with the Haynes lineups:

  • The main eyewitness initially implicated a different man than Haynes.
  • Police used an old mugshot of Haynes that matched the witnesses' description rather than a up-to-date one that did not.
  • Witnesses were repeatedly exposed to Haynes amid a rotating cast of fillers.
  • Detectives working the case conducted the lineups, contrary to guidelines to use other officers to avoid influencing witnesses.

Retired detective Keefe said in a statement that twice presenting Haynes to the eyewitnesses was "prejudicial," "reckless and irresponsible." He recalled that, when a MPD homicide commander ordered him to conduct a second lineup with Haynes as the main suspect, he thought it was a joke and questioned the legality. Senior Hennepin County attorneys approved the maneuver, Keefe said.

Looking back, the detective said a "slow and methodical" investigation would have been more proper than using the "hurry up" secondary lineup tactic. But a cancer diagnosis took him off the case, Keefe said, and he never testified at trial.

Mattson could not be reached for comment.

Prosecutor: '110% confident'

Former prosecutor Furnstahl laughed at the mention of the Innocence Project's advocacy, saying he was "110% confident" in Haynes' guilt.

Furnstahl noted investigators located several teenagers who said Haynes made incriminating statements before and after the murder. Their testimony was key to conviction.

One of those was Haynes' cousin Isiah Harper. Fourteen at the time, he said he had overheard Haynes and another 14-year-old boy discussing committing a robbery before driving off together on the morning of the murder. Afterward, Haynes called him and confessed to shooting a man, Harper said.

Harper has since signed an affidavit recanting his 2005 testimony. He said officers approached him to corroborate their theories about his cousin and "threatened" him with half the prison time Haynes was facing if he didn't help.

"It was all lies that I believed I had to give the police to avoid going to prison myself," Harper said in the affidavit.

In 2004, investigators interviewed other teens who claimed to have heard Haynes brag about the flower shop murder. But their testimony raised questions about multiple Marvins.

A 16-year-old girl testified about dropping by a house in North Minneapolis after the murder. There, "Marvin" told her he was lying low because he'd shot an old white man and police were after him. But the girl could not identify Haynes in the courtroom, and the house she had gone to — investigators learned during the course of the trial — was the home of another young man named Marvin.

Young men of an era

Furnstahl was also prosecutor on a more prominent Innocence Project case: that of south Minneapolis' Myon Burrell, who was 17 years old when he was given life in prison for the 2002 murder of 11-year-old Tyesha Edwards. Burrell's sentence was commuted in 2020 following an AP investigation that marred former Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar's presidential run.

Yet Burrell's bid for exoneration remains undecided. The CRU has not yet selected the members of his review panel. Furnstahl, who has written a lengthy rebuttal to Burrell's claims of innocence, claims credit for the CRU's ginger approach.

If he and the Innocence Project agree on anything, it's there are similarities between Haynes and Burrell, notwithstanding their shared prosecutor. The cases rose out of the same era, revolving around young Black teens tried as adults and sentenced to life for crimes against innocent victims that shocked the community.

Maintaining innocence

Investigators interrogated Haynes on camera three days after the flower shop murder. Bluffing, they told him they had fingerprints, DNA and security footage linking him. Haynes cried and yelled back and forth with Keefe as the detective insisted, "Marvin, you were pissed off because you didn't get any money and you said [expletive] it, I'm going to shoot this guy!"

"What the [expletive]," Haynes said, flattening himself against the wall. "I don't wanna talk anymore. Y'all are trying to do something ... You're trying to set me up."

Haynes testified in his own trial. When the jury returned a guilty verdict, he protested, "I didn't kill that man! They're all going to burn in hell for that."

Nearly 20 years later, Haynes said he's changed from the rudderless teenager he was then — fixated on the streets, partying and girls but lacking any real understanding of life.

During his early years in prison, Haynes rebelled and got into fights.

"In my mind I'm like, I'm not supposed to be here ... It brought so much anger out of me," Haynes said on a phone call from Stillwater prison.

He read about the Innocence Project in a magazine, Haynes said. He wrote them. They wrote back.

Haynes earned a high school diploma in prison. He's had painting, metal packing and balloon manufacturing work assignments. Should he ever be freed, he would work anywhere and stay with his siblings until he made enough to stand on his own.

Four of Haynes' sisters signed affidavits saying he was home asleep on the couch the morning of the murder.

Marvina Haynes, an advocate for people with a history of incarceration, said her brother's conviction sent her family into a downward spiral. Their parents split. Their mother had a stroke.

"After that happened to Marvin, it was no more dinner on the table," she said.

"What has Marvin done? That was always the question."