A judge on Thursday rebuked the Hennepin County attorney’s office for charging a man with murder in the drive-by shooting death of his girlfriend’s son last summer, saying holding him responsible “defies common sense.”
But now that murder, manslaughter and child neglect charges have been dismissed against 25-year-old Melvonte Peterson, no one is being held responsible for the July drive-by shooting that killed 2-year-old Le’Vonte King Jason Jones and wounded Peterson’s 15-month-old daughter. Peterson, who was behind the wheel of a minivan carrying the children in north Minneapolis when the minivan was fired upon, returned fire but was not responsible for the shots that struck the children.
“I know who did this,” Le’Vonte’s mother, LaShae Jones, said in an interview last month. “I want justice for my son.”
The person who fired the shots that killed the boy is still free, despite both Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty saying in interviews with the Star Tribune that they know who did it.
“My hope is that since the prosecutors and police know who did this, that they will charge him and justice will be done,” said Moriarty, who represents Peterson.
During an interview in December, Freeman said he knew who shot Le’Vonte, but added, “Can I prove it beyond a reasonable doubt? No.”
“If I had it, I’d have charged it,” he said.
Police arrested another person in connection with the shooting about two weeks after Le’Vonte’s death, but a few days later Freeman’s office announced that charges would be deferred due to “insufficient evidence.”
The Star Tribune generally does not name suspects who have not been charged. Reached last month, that man said he “had nothing to do” with Le’Vonte’s death.
Peterson was driving the minivan with his two children on July 8 when about 11:30 a.m. a black Impala pulled up next to him. The driver opened fire at the van, hitting Le’Vonte, according to court records. Peterson rushed the children to a nearby hospital, where the boy was pronounced dead a short time later.
In arguing that Peterson was responsible for Le’Vonte’s death, the Hennepin County attorney’s office said that before the shooting the stepfather was “carrying a loaded gun in his hand and looking for a fight in a known gang territory,” assistant county attorney Amy Sweasy wrote in an October court filing.
“[Peterson] should have reasonably foreseen this result,” Sweasy wrote.
But Judge Regina Chu rejected that argument, instead holding the Impala shooter responsible for Le’Vonte’s death.
“The adversary fired the shots first,” she wrote. “By the time [Peterson] returned fire, his child had already been mortally wounded and he was fleeing the scene.”
Chu wrote that the facts did not support the prosecutor’s theory that Peterson was looking for a gunfight.
“The shooting happened in the daylight hours. Defendant did not initiate the shooting. That defendant had a new firearm does not imply he was out riding around searching for trouble.”
Public defender Moriarty said Peterson should never have been charged.
“The argument that you can’t drive with your children in a dangerous area and if somebody shoots at your car you should be charged with murder is pretty shocking,” she said.
Freeman’s office declined to comment on Judge Chu’s order.
‘Troubled by timing’
Police arrested Peterson July 15, the day of Le’Vonte’s funeral. He was initially charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm and drive-by shooting. He had been convicted of drug possession in 2012 and 2014. The county attorney added the murder and child neglect charges in September. Peterson still faces his initial charges and is being held in the Hennepin County jail in lieu of $1 million bail, which was set before he was charged with murder.
Moriarty said her office will request Peterson’s release.
“He will never have the opportunity to go to his child’s funeral again,” she said. “We’re troubled by the way this was charged and by the timing.”
Minneapolis police say they are still investigating the case.
The Rev. Danny Givens, LaShae Jones’ cousin, said the family is glad the murder charges against Peterson were dropped, but they are still seeking justice.
“Hopefully they will pursue who killed our loved one as hard as they pursued prosecuting Melvonte,” he said.
Staff writer Libor Jany contributed to this report.