What’s behind the push for MN to take over Hennepin County trooper murder case?

21 March 2024

Law enforcement groups and others are calling for the state to take over a murder prosecution against a state trooper amid questions about whether the Hennepin County attorney is handling the case fairly.

Attorneys for Minnesota State Trooper Ryan Londregan last week claimed Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty excluded evidence that would have cleared Londregan of wrongdoing. Moriarty denies mishandling the case.

Now the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association is calling for Gov. Tim Walz to appoint Attorney General Keith Ellison as prosecutor in the case. Walz has not said what he will do, but on Monday questioned Moriarty’s handling of the case and didn’t rule out taking action.

“As a layman on this, why would you not listen to a use-of-force expert?” said Walz. “I do trust juries, I do trust justice system, that’s at the end of the day what needs to happen here. But a case needs to be put in front of them that’s fair to get justice.”

Ryan Patrick Londregan, 27. (Courtesy of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office)

Moriarty, former head of the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office, was elected Hennepin County attorney in 2022 on a platform of addressing racial disparities in the criminal justice system and holding police officers accountable. Her approach to prosecution has at times attracted criticism from law enforcement groups who say she is overly lenient on criminals or too harsh on police.

The shooting

Londregan, 27, is being prosecuted for murder in the shooting death of Ricky Cobb II during a July traffic stop on Interstate 94 in Minneapolis. Officers pulled over Cobb, 33, in relation to a violation of a protective order.

Londregan shot Cobb after Cobb shifted his vehicle into drive and let his foot off the brake when Londregan and another trooper tried to arrest him, according to a criminal complaint.

The defense in the case says Londregan was trying to protect himself and his partner. But Hennepin County prosecutors say the shooting was unjustified and charged Londregan in January with second-degree unintentional murder, first-degree assault and second-degree manslaughter.

Use-of-force expert

Last week, attorneys for Londregan alleged Moriarty had ignored and suppressed advice from Hennepin County’s independent police use-of-force expert Jeffrey Noble before she decided to pursue charges. Noble said Londregan was justified in using deadly force as lives were in danger, defense attorneys claimed.

Moriarty’s office has denied allegations by the defense, and says their conclusions were “cherry-picked” from a lengthy document tied to a meeting from the early stages of the investigation.

“It is simply false that the expert engaged by the State came to any legal conclusion related to Mr. Londregan’s conduct,” Hennepin County Attorney’s Office spokesperson Nick Kimball said in a statement. “In fact, the expert characterized the meeting as a preliminary discussion with the State. Once again the defense is abusing the legal process to initiate inaccurate pretrial publicity in this case.”

News of the Hennepin County Attorney allegedly ignoring the force expert’s opinion last week led to the Minnesota Peace and Police Officers Association to send a letter to the governor requesting he appoint Attorney General Keith Ellison as prosecutor in the case. MPPOA argued Moriarty could not be trusted to handle the case as she had allegedly ignored exculpatory evidence.

“Rather than fairly and honestly evaluating all the evidence, including the analysis of their ‘critical’ expert, the (Hennepin County Attorney’s Office) decided to manufacture a basis, no matter how flimsy, to bring charges they intended to bring from the very start,” the MPPOA said in a letter to Walz last Friday.

In response to the allegations, Republican state lawmakers last week called for Moriarty’s resignation. Members of Minnesota’s Congressional delegation have weighed in as well. U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, a Republican who represents a northeast Minnesota district that includes Duluth, joined fellow GOP officials in calling for resignation.

Congresswoman Angie Craig, a south metro Democrat who has received endorsement from the MPPOA in the past, says Walz should appoint the attorney general to take over the case and issued a statement on the matter on Wednesday.

Gov. Tim Walz. (Ben Hovland / MPR News)

Has this happened before?

If Walz appoints Ellison prosecutor in the Londregan case, it won’t be the first time he’s done so in Moriarty’s tenure.

In 2023, Walz handed a murder case to Ellison after Moriarty offered two juveniles a plea deal to avoid adult sentences in the shooting death of a 23-year-old mother of an infant. The move came after backlash from the public and family of the victim.

The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office said it offered the deal as a way to get more information about an ex-boyfriend who had allegedly directed the 15- and 17-year-olds to kill the woman. Moriarty said offering the deal gave the juveniles a better chance of reform.

It’s not common for the governor to intervene in a case without the local prosecutor’s request.

In Minnesota, the governor can designate the attorney general as the prosecutor in a county case, but oftentimes this happens in smaller jurisdictions where the county attorney may need assistance with prosecuting a complex, high-profile case.

Typically, the attorney general will get the governor’s office to request the designation after a county attorney seeks state help. What sets the Londregan case apart is outside groups dissatisfied with Moriarty’s handling of the prosecution are asking the governor to direct the attorney general to intervene.

Ellison’s office has not said whether it wants to take the case, and said it continues to review the letter from the MPPOA.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

It’s also unclear how the attorney general’s office would approach the case. Typically, the attorney general represents state government agencies. Londregan is a State Patrol trooper, meaning the attorney general’s office is prosecuting a state employee.

Walz said he’s confident in the attorney general’s ability to create firewalls to prevent conflicts within his office.

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