Prosecutors have the gun that Brian G. Fitch Sr. allegedly used to kill a Mendota Heights police officer last summer.
They have witnesses who saw Fitch’s green Pontiac Grand Am speed away from the fallen officer.
They have Fitch’s own words, including what he allegedly told his girlfriend: “If he was stopped, he would go so far as shooting a police officer.” And to an officer: “Just so you know, I hate cops and I’m guilty.”
Meanwhile Fitch’s defense team has been mostly silent about their strategy. Technically they don’t even need a strategy because, above all else, they have the bedrock of the American judicial system: the presumption of innocence.
When potential jurors file into the Stearns County Courthouse Monday morning, it will be nearly six months since police officer Scott Patrick, 47, tried to make a routine traffic stop. Instead, someone in the car he pulled over shot him three times and left him to die on the street.
“Every homicide is tragic, every homicide is emotional,” said former Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner, who prosecuted the man accused of killing St. Paul police Sgt. Jerry Vick in 2005. “But there is an extra layer when it is a police officer who has given up his or her life as part of the job of protecting us.”
The trial, expected to start Jan. 20 if a jury is seated by then, comes amid a national conversation about police and police tactics that was sparked by recent events in Missouri and New York. In August, Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. Since then in New York City, Eric Garner, an asthmatic man, died while in a police chokehold, and two police officers were killed, execution style, by a man who made statements on social media that he was upset by the Garner and Brown cases and planned to kill police officers.
Bradford Colbert, an adjunct professor in residence at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, said prosecutors and defense attorneys will have to be mindful of those cases during jury selection.
Defense attorneys don’t want jurors who are too sympathetic to police; prosecutors want just the opposite, he said.
“Hopefully that’s what they’ll try to get at during voir dire,” Colbert said, using a term describing the questioning of potential jurors.
John Sonsteng, law professor at William Mitchell, said recent national news is “going to have an influence. The lawyers will be addressing it. They’ll have to.”
Acting on tips, police zeroed in on Fitch about eight hours after Patrick was killed, capturing him after a gunfight with St. Paul officers.
Fitch is charged with first-degree murder and three counts of attempted first-degree murder. Because of his lengthy felony record, he also is charged with illegally possessing a firearm.
In an unusual move, Dakota and Ramsey counties chose to jointly prosecute him, a move the defense tried to squash but lost. Each county’s heavy hitter is leading the case against Fitch: Phil Prokopowicz, chief deputy in the Dakota County Attorney’s office, and Richard Dusterhoft, head of the criminal division in the Ramsey County Attorney’s office.
The trial, expected to last at least two weeks, was moved to St. Cloud after the defense asked for the change of venue due to extensive publicity.
Prosecutors have a potential witness list of about 70 people. The defense plans to call at least four witnesses. They include a lieutenant in the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office and another public defender.
A veteran officer
Patrick, 47, the married father of two, was the longest serving member of the Mendota Heights force and its only officer to ever be killed in the line of duty. More than 5,000 people, including 4,000 members of law enforcement from the state and region, attended his funeral in August.
He was shot three times about 12:20 p.m. July 30 on Dodd Road in West St. Paul. Witnesses said he had stopped a green Pontiac Grand Am. Fitch had been seen earlier that day leaving a residence in that same car, and police traced him to it through a woman who said she had recently sold him the car.
According to court documents, Fitch ditched the Grand Am at a friend’s house on S. Robert Street in St. Paul and told the friend to hide it. He borrowed a Hyundai Veracruz SUV from a woman at that house.
Later that day, police got a tip that Fitch was at a house on E. Sycamore Street in St. Paul. As officers approached, Fitch was seen driving away in the Veracruz. He was cornered in a nearby parking lot. A gunfight ensued. Fitch was shot eight times.
Two guns, including one matching the gun used to kill Patrick, were found in the Veracruz after Fitch was arrested and taken to Regions Hospital.
Fitch had three active warrants for his arrest on the day Patrick was killed, including one for violating the terms of his supervised release on an unrelated burglary conviction. A search warrant affidavit said Fitch’s ex-girlfriend told police that he had called her on July 29, and allegedly told her, “If he got stopped, he would go so far as shooting a police officer.”
The criminal complaint alleged that Fitch, from his hospital bed, told an officer guarding him, “Just so you know, I hate cops and I’m guilty.”
Fitch has been held at Oak Parks Heights prison. He appeared in court in a wheelchair for most of his pretrial hearings, but in December, he walked a few steps from the wheelchair to a seat beside his attorneys.
Eyewitnesses to Patrick’s death gave conflicting statements about the shooter. Several said he was blond in his early 20s. Fitch is 40 and bald. Another said the shooter was Hispanic. Someone else saw two people in the car.
“Eyewitness testimony is some of the most scientifically unreliable testimony,” said Colbert, supervisor of the William Mitchell’s Legal Assistance to Minnesota Prisoners clinic.
Last week, prosecutors filed a notice that they intend to introduce evidence at the trial that Fitch conspired from his prison cell to commit murder and tamper with a witness. No criminal charges have been filed yet. Fitch’s defense team of attorneys Lauri Traub and Gordon Cohoes filed several motions Friday, including one to exclude any other wrongdoing on Fitch’s part, claiming it would unfairly prejudice the jury.
John Conard, a defense attorney at Edina-based Hellmuth and Johnson, said the witness allegation could be powerful evidence of his guilt.
“If they have a recorded phone call where he [Fitch] is trying to arrange for bad things to happen to a witness or threatening a witness, that is just damning evidence.” But, Conard said, if the state’s case is strong enough, the court may exclude the intimidation allegation from the homicide trial so that it doesn’t open up a route to an appeal of the case.
Patrick’s widow, Michelle, and relatives, many of whom live in the Twin Cities, plan to attend the trial, said Mike Brue, Patrick’s half brother. He said he hopes the trial will be a thorough and fair process, a display of “the judicial system at its best.”