Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison was beaming in January when his law school buddy Mary Moriarty took center stage at the historic Capri Theater in north Minneapolis to be sworn in as Hennepin County attorney.
Ellison congratulated Moriarty on her landslide victory and on her pledge to transform how the county administers justice. The road ahead would be difficult, he said, filled with tough calls that sometimes lead to bad press. He advised that she remain faithful to the community's and her own core values, but be open to disagreements.
"Mary's gonna make some mistakes, y'all," Ellison told the crowd. "Change is necessary — and it can be hard."
Only three months later, Moriarty and Ellison stood divided in an intense tug-of-war over who should lead prosecution of a high-profile murder case.
Gov. Tim Walz has taken Ellison's side, appointing him to the case without Moriarty's consent following weeks of mounting public outcry about her decision to offer a plea deal to two teenage brothers accused of shooting 23-year-old Zaria McKeever last November during a home invasion in Brooklyn Park.
Now Moriarty, just beginning a four-year term, is defending her authority as she tries to pursue the sentencing reforms she ran on while containing the fallout from her public split with the state's leading Democrats.
She blasted the decision as "undemocratic," noting that she was elected on a platform to reform the juvenile justice system by focusing on rehabilitation rather than punishment. In defense of the takeover, Ellison argued the pleas fell short of community standards for such a heinous crime.
"The system doesn't offer any good solutions here," said Justin Terrell, executive director of the Minnesota Justice Research Center. "What you see is Keith Ellison responding to the calls of the community to step in, and to honor the struggle that he knows is real in our community. And you see Mary trying to force a system to be more responsive to the needs of children that it clearly is not built to respond to."
The clash has created a quagmire of legal issues for the pending prosecution, which is attempting to walk back the plea deal for the 15-year-old alleged gunman.
Legal experts and advocacy groups are critical of state officials interfering in Moriarty's case, an objection made by all 87 Minnesota county attorneys. Though Ellison said he doesn't anticipate removing another case like this, critics argue the move may chill prosecutors from making independent calls they feel are in the best interest of justice.
"I'm quite confident that Mary's not going to be looking over her shoulder on future decisions in the office, and my guess is the governor is never going to do this again," said retired Hennepin County District Judge Kevin Burke, who is friends with both Ellison and Moriarty and administered her oath of office at the Capri.
"The bottom line is anyone who has been involved in these kinds of decisions knows that reasonable minds can differ," Burke said.
At a defiant news conference last week, Moriarty vowed to continue weighing each individual juvenile case and making decisions based on research and what she feels will protect public safety.
Five minors have been certified as adults in Hennepin County in 2023, according to a Star Tribune analysis of juvenile court records. All of those were filed under the previous administration of County Attorney Mike Freeman, but Moriarty signed off on each disposition.
However, she has changed course in cases where prosecutors initially sought a conviction in adult court for juveniles accused of criminal vehicular homicide, and in McKeever's murder.
Freeman had the teenage brothers slated to stand trial for second-degree murder alongside Erick Haynes, the 22-year-old man suspected of orchestrating the attack. But in February, Moriarty offered a plea deal that would spare the 15- and 17-year-old males a lengthy adult prison sentence in exchange for their testimony against Haynes.
The older teen, John Kamara, accepted that offer last month and is now serving two years at a juvenile facility. Once released, he'll remain on probation with an adult sentence hanging over him until he turns 21.
The move outraged McKeever's family and many community members, who believed Moriarty's act of leniency failed to hold the teens accountable for McKeever's killing on Nov. 8 — the same night Walz, Ellison and Moriarty were elected. It was the first statewide election in the aftermath of George Floyd's 2020 murder, which sparked Moriarty's run for office as a progressive earning the DFL Party and Ellison's endorsements.
"It's startling for two people who you'd think would be aligning very similar on the political left to reach very divergent positions," Hamline University political science Prof. David Schultz said. "It speaks to the tensions, both in our criminal justice system and in our political system, where we're not completely sure how we want to treat juvenile offenders."
Law enforcement officials widely condemned the plea deal for sending a dangerous message to troubled youth that they now had a "get out of jail free" card.
Hennepin County Sheriff Dawanna Witt met with Moriarty to express her concern about the proposed sentence in the McKeever case. Children need immediate consequences for their actions, Witt said, and sometimes that includes incarceration.
"We cannot give up on our kids. I feel very strongly about that," said Witt, the first Black woman elected sheriff in Minnesota. "But we also have to save our kids from themselves."
She said that, even at 15 and 17 years old, the two teens should be "old enough to know better."
A campaign promise
The McKeever case is not the first to draw scrutiny to Moriarty's decisionmaking as a prosecutor, after three decades of working as a public defender.
Just a few weeks into the job, she chose to dismiss a rape case involving a teenage girl accusing an adult male relative during his jury trial, after a prosecutor was caught lying in court. She stood by the controversial decision.
Many have questioned if McKeever's killing was the right moment for Moriarty to hold fast to her campaign promise to treat juvenile offenders as children rather than seek to punish them as adults. But Schultz asked: "What better time to do it on a case or an issue that means so much?"
Nevertheless, he questioned Ellison and Walz's motives. The Attorney General's Office typically handles civil matters, but Ellison has been seeking more funding to beef up criminal prosecution in his office. And Walz is accused of being soft on crime, Schultz said.
"So I think you've got this political and budgetary kind of stuff in the background," he said.
In complex homicide cases like this one, experts say it can be difficult to see past grief. A growing body of research shows that incarcerated teens are more likely to end up in prison as adults, drop out of school or wind up on public assistance, than those who are not.
"If it was my family member that was killed, or somebody does something to my kids, I would want the absolute worst thing to happen to them that could possibly happen," said Rick Petry, a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. But he said this particular case is about politics: "It's folks trying to say, 'I hear you family, I hear you community.' "
The knee-jerk reaction is to send a kid to prison for murder, Petry said. "But that's so shortsighted. And it's not well-informed."
One day before removing the case from Moriarty, Ellison attended a community event at Shiloh Temple in the heart of north Minneapolis' Black community. He and others pushed back on adolescent brain research often cited by Moriarty that suggests a person's mind is not fully formed until age 25.
Faith and community leaders questioned how teens can be considered responsible enough to buy alcohol, vote, and go to war long before they reach the age of 25, but not be held accountable for murder.
"This was not a drive-by," said the Rev. Jerry McAfee, of New Salem Baptist Church. "This was a cold, calculated murder — and now you dare suggest that we lack the cognitive ability to ascertain the danger of someone that would stand over [a mother] and place five bullets in them. We're supposed to accept that two years is enough because you want to spit on us and tell us that it's raining, because his brain is not shaped nor formed.
"We ain't saying, throw him away for the rest of his life. But two years ain't gonna get it."