Harry J. Evans likely ran out of options Thursday when the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed his first-degree murder conviction in the May 2005 killing of St. Paul police Sgt. Gerald Vick.
The high court's ruling ended almost three years of legal wrangling in the case. Evans, 35, was convicted in January 2006 of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.
His attorneys argued fervently, first before the district court judge who presided over the trial and eventually before the Supreme Court, that a juror who helped decide Evans' fate had made racist comments about black people before the trial began. The juror is white; Evans is black.
In its ruling, the high court upheld a ruling by Ramsey County District Judge Kathleen Gearin that evidence presented at a post-verdict Schwartz hearing didn't prove that the juror was racially biased and that Evans was not entitled to a new trial.
The high court also found that the district court did not err when it allowed prosecutors to interview that juror a few days before the hearing was held.
Justice Alan Page, the lone dissenter, disagreed on that point. He wrote that because Minnesota's rules of criminal procedure and previous case law prohibit attorneys from contacting jurors before a post-verdict hearing has been granted, it also should be prohibited after a hearing has been granted.
Page said that although the contact was authorized by the district court, it "affected Evans' substantial rights" because it made it "difficult if not impossible to assess the trustworthiness of the juror's testimony."
The court should reverse Evans' conviction and order a new trial, Page wrote.
"Justice Page got it right," said David Gill, Evans' trial attorney. Gill called the court's decision "an unfortunate situation because it deprives an innocent person of an opportunity to have a new trial to demonstrate his innocence."
County Attorney Susan Gaertner, who personally prosecuted the case, obviously felt otherwise. "It's a very good result," she said of the decision. "We thought all along that Harry Evans had received a fair trial. Now we can remember how Sgt. Jerry Vick lived rather than how he died."
Vick, 41, was working undercover with his partner, Sgt. Joe Strong, when he was shot three times near Erick's Bar on May 6, 2005.
Evans was charged with first-degree murder after his friend, Antonio Kelly, who was with him that night, fingered him as the shooter. Evans' trial attorneys insist to this day that it was Kelly who shot Vick.
The legal battle continued after the trial when it was learned that Cathy Arver, then a pulltab operator at the Lucky Foxx Bar, had called Gearin's chambers during the trial and left a message saying that she heard juror Fay Haakinson use a racial epithet when talking about the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
The court did not permit or conduct an inquiry into that information during the trial and denied a defense motion to do so after the verdict. The defense appealed and in April 2007, the Supreme Court returned the case to the lower court for further inquiry into potential juror bias.
Gaertner and an agent from the state Bureau of Criminal of Apprehension had met with Haakinson several days before she testified at the hearing and it was that meeting that Evans' appellate attorney, Lydia Villalva Lijo, argued was improper.
The court's opinion Thursday said that, "While we have never prohibited an attorney or investigator from interviewing a juror after a post-verdict Schwartz hearing has been granted, we have never approved such contact. In the absence of case law or rule ... we cannot conclude that the state's contact with the juror was error."
Lijo said Thursday that she was disappointed.
"What continues to be disturbing about this case is that the fairness and integrity of the proceeding were severely eroded. That is not good for criminal defendants, for the state, for the courts or for the people of Minnesota."
Pat Pheifer • 651-298-1551