Prosecutors in the case against a man charged with the murder of Michael Clark in downtown Minneapolis last summer argued that they had no choice but to postpone his trial amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a memorandum filed Thursday, assistant Hennepin County Attorney Dominick Mathews wrote that the defendant, James Wren, was also to blame for the delays after firing his previous attorney last fall.
“Two additional months of pretrial incarceration cannot be defined as lengthy given the circumstances,” Mathews wrote. “Additionally, the length of Defendant’s pretrial incarceration is similar to similarly situated defendants awaiting trial on first degree murder charges.”
The filing comes in response to an earlier defense motion to dismiss all charges on the grounds that Wren’s rights to a speedy trial were violated when his trial date was moved from March 16 to May 11.
Judge Nicole Engisch said she had taken the motion under advisement, according to court records.
Wren, 36, is charged with first-degree murder and related crimes in the shooting that killed Michael Clark and left his nephew paralyzed from the waist down after an altercation in downtown’s entertainment district last June. Wren has pleaded not guilty to all charges and signaled that he intends to claim he acted in self-defense.
Assistant county public defender Bryan Leary declined to comment when reached late Thursday.
State law requires that a person who has been indicted and is in custody be tried within 120 days unless he or she waives the right to a speedy trial. Wren’s court-appointed lawyer argued that, COVID-19-related or not, the delay harms his defense, and urged a judge to consider releasing his client under supervision until the trial.
Legal experts expect defense attorneys to pursue similar strategies at a time when officials across the country are working to keep the criminal justice system moving amid the pandemic, balancing constitutional rights with growing health concerns.
But Mathews asked the judge to allow the case to proceed as scheduled, writing that current circumstances made some delays inevitable, particularly after the statewide closure of schools “not only significantly affected the availability of jurors” but that of the prosecutors as well.
“Both prosecutors have school age children who were affected by Governor Walz’s order closing all schools,” he wrote. “This was relevant because it was understood that the order closing schools and daycares did not include jurors or prosecutors as essential [workers] entitled to child care.”
Mathews also dismissed a defense argument that the death of a witness last month prejudiced Wren’s case.
The witness, Kyle Culberson, was killed by a gunman who opened fire on a birthday party at a house in north Minneapolis’ Shingle Creek neighborhood, leaving two other men wounded.
A 23-year-old man has since been charged in his murder.
No motive has been given for the slaying, but authorities say there is no indication that Culberson, who is listed as a potential witness for both the defense and the state, was targeted because of his upcoming testimony.
Clark died on the morning of June 10 after he tried to intervene in a confrontation between his cousin and Wren, police say. Wren retrieved a gun and opened fire, they say, striking the nephew and Clark before fleeing. He was arrested a short time later; no murder weapon was recovered at the scene, police say.