Calling the case "rare and exceptional," the Minnesota Supreme Court said Thursday that a Ramsey County judge had no authority to convict and sentence 14-year-old Jerry Vang as an adult. Vang was sentenced to life in prison for the 2001 shooting death of another teenager.
The court reversed Vang's convictions for first-degree murder and first-degree attempted murder and sent the case back to the district court. It was unclear Thursday what form any new proceedings would take. Vang, now 23, could stand trial.
The ruling did not sit well with County Attorney Susan Gaertner. "In layman's terms, the reversal is on very technical, procedural grounds. The essence is that the judge didn't dot the i's and cross the t's when he took off his juvenile court hat and put on his adult court hat," she said.
"From prosecutor to defense attorney to judge, all were doing what they thought was necessary and following the procedures they thought were correct," Gaertner said.
The case stems from a shooting on Aug. 7, 2001, in an alley on St. Paul's East Side. Kor Vang picked up Jerry Vang at his home and the two were driving to a funeral. Along the way, they turned into an alley and saw several people, including Kao Vang and Kou Vang. It is unclear in documents just who was related to whom. Jerry Vang and Kao Vang got into an argument, Jerry Vang pulled out a gun and shot Kao Vang and Kou Vang. Kou survived, Kao did not.
On Nov. 6, 2001, Vang appeared in juvenile court before District Judge Edward Wilson, where he waived his right to an adult certification hearing and pleaded guilty to the two charges. The judge did not rule on the adult certification issue but accepted Vang's pleas. On Nov. 26, Wilson sentenced Vang to a life term.
Later that month, Vang wrote the first of five letters to the State Public Defender's Office, asking for help with an appeal. Each time, he was told that he had no grounds for an appeal, according to documents. In March 2009, he was assigned a public defender, but by then, the statute of limitations to file an appeal had expired.
The Supreme Court said Thursday that it was voiding Vang's convictions because the juvenile court lacked jurisdiction to convict and sentence Vang as an adult.
Melissa Sheridan, Vang's appellate lawyer, said that despite a waiver, it's up to the judge to determine whether a juvenile defendant's case belongs in adult court.
"The juvenile court always has the responsibility to make the finding that certification is appropriate, whether moving a child from juvenile court to adult court is the right thing to do," Sheridan said.
The Supreme Court remanded Vang's case to district court because he is now an adult. But Sheridan said it could be argued that it belongs in juvenile court.
"If he had had his appeal when he was supposed to have it and won the way we won today, he would be entitled to a certification hearing," she said. "It's not right to take that away from him, because that's not his fault."
Pat Pheifer • 612-741-4992