Two women who were convicted in the 2017 killing of a 19-year-old man during a botched robbery were released from prison last week — the first people to be resentenced under a new law that differentiates criminal sentences for major participants and those who played a lesser role in a murder.
In April 2018, a Hennepin County judge sentenced Briana Martinson of Prior Lake and Megan Cater of Lakeville each to 13½ years in prison for their part in the robbery-turned-murder of Corey Elder. Neither fired the gun that killed Elder. But in a plea deal with prosecutors that allowed them to avoid a potential life sentence, Martinson and Cater confessed to putting the robbery in motion in a plot to retrieve missing pills. Their anticipated release date was set for 2026, per Minnesota's sentencing guidelines.
Last fall, the DFL-controlled Legislature revised the law after a nonpartisan task force report called into question the fairness and "disregard for intent to harm" of Minnesota's murder doctrines. The 2021 report said Minnesota was rendering the same punishments to killers and lesser participants who "did not cause death, cause any injury to the deceased, nor intend for anyone to die."
The new law, passed last year, says a person cannot be charged under the state's aiding and abetting felony murder doctrine if they did not cause or intend to cause death or act as a major participant in the underlying crime. The law is retroactive, meaning people who are serving prison sentences under the old statute may petition for resentencing.
Last week, Judge Kerry Meyer vacated murder convictions for Martinson and Cater, resentencing them for burglary under the new statute. Factoring in the time they'd already served, the two women were released.
"The felony murder statute has long produced unjustly punitive convictions and sentences in Minnesota," said attorney and professor JaneAnne Murray, who represented Cater through the University of Minnesota School of Law's legal clinic. "Ms. Cater is grateful that the Minnesota Legislature reformed it, and, through its 'second look' provision, allowed her to benefit from the changes."
Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty, whose predecessor prosecuted the case, said her office supported the petition for resentencing.
"They didn't go with the intention to kill him," Moriarty said. "They were not major participants in the victim's death."
Moriarty said the victim's family "did not agree with this decision," but her office determined the petition met the standard under the new law.
A message to Elder's mom was not returned.
Burglary led to murder
On April 26, 2017, Martinson realized she lost her bottle of gabapentin, a medication prescribed to her for seizures, which she'd planned to sell. She and Cater had been to the Bloomington apartment of Elder, who sold drugs.
According to past Star Tribune reporting on the case:
When Elder and his girlfriend woke up the next day, they saw Martinson's pills. He wanted to sell them and told his girlfriend not to tell anyone he'd found them.
Martinson and Cater formed a plan to go to Elder's house with Martinson's "ghetto shakopee friends" and retrieve the pills. She texted another friend the next day, 20-year-old Alec Streit, who also believed Elder had stolen from him, and wanted in.
Martinson, Cater, Streit, Maurice Verser, Noah Peterson and Tarrance Murphy rode together to Elder's apartment building. They planned for the women to go in first and look for the drugs and money. Then Verser and Murphy would follow and rough up Elder and scare his girlfriend. Streit and Peterson would wait in the getaway car. Everyone knew a gun would be involved.
Martinson pounded on the door. When Elder answered, the two women burst in with Murphy and Verser behind them. The women ran to Elder's room knowing he kept drugs there and grabbed cocaine and Xanax. Verser threatened to kill the women if they tried to leave the room, Cater later told police.
Verser and Murphy beat Elder. Cater later told police that she and Martinson begged the two men not to kill Elder, but he did anyway.
All six were convicted in the murder, with Murphy and Verser receiving the longest sentences of 20 and 32 years in prison, respectively.
At sentencing, several family members spoke to the loss of Elder.
"My son had a heart of gold and an old soul," said his mother, Bobbie Alhaqq.