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Conviction Upheld in Slaying in Victim's Home

Tuesday, October 10, 2017  
Posted by: Laura Fenstermaker
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From Minnesota Lawyer

A few days after Thomas Sonnenberg, 69, was shot and killed after letting Devon Parker into his home, Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman referred to Sonnenberg as a good Samaritan during a press conference. Subsequent media reports referred to a good Samaritan or a good Samaritan killing.

Parker, appealing his conviction for second-degree murder to the Minnesota Supreme Court, claimed that was prosecutorial misconduct. The Supreme Court said that “good Samaritan” appellation did not affect the defendant’s substantial rights and did not entitle him to a change of venue.

The court upheld Parker’s conviction and upheld the District Court’s 480-month sentence, which the Court of Appeals had reversed. The District Court had imposed a 41-month upward departure because the murder took place in Sonnenberg’s home.

The unanimous opinion in State v. Parker was written by Justice Natalie Hudson. Justice Anne McKeig recused.

Good Samaritan

Parker rang the back doorbell of the Sonnenberg couple’s north Minneapolis home and asked to be let in because men were chasing him and trying to kill him. He came into the home and Sonnenberg dialed 911. The Sonnenberg house had deadbolts that locked from either side, meaning a person could not enter or exit the house without a key. After the 911 call ended, Parker asked to leave but Sonnenberg, who had a loaded pistol on his hip, told him that police were on their way and he was safe where he was. Parker took Sonnenberg’s gun and shot him in the forehead.

At the press conference after the arrest, Freeman also spoke about Parker’s prior record and sentencing history as well as his constitutional right against self-incrimination.

A year later, Parker filed a motion for a change of venue, claiming he was the subject of a media “feeding frenzy” that repeatedly used the term good Samaritan. He did not then claim Freeman’s statements at the press conference constituted misconduct.

The District Court denied the motion based on the age of the publicity and the effect of the voir dire to week out those who were influenced by it. The court granted Parker’s request that the state be prohibited from referring to Sonnenberg as a good Samaritan.

Freeman told Minnesota Lawyer that the court ruled correctly that there was no indication that his comments or the pretrial publicity had any effect on Parker’s rights, pointing out that the press conference was a year before the trial.  The case shows the reliability of the voir dire process, Freeman said.

During voir dire, no juror said they knew Parker or knew about him. He was found guilty and the jury found that Sonnenberg was killed in his home. He received a 480-month sentence.

Plain error standard

The court reviewed the claim of prosecutorial misconduct for plain error, since it was not asserted at the District Court. In a footnote the court said, “Although we have never addressed whether prosecutorial misconduct during a pretrial press conference is subject to plain-error review of the sort traditionally reserved for trial errors when contemporaneous objection and court ruling is possible, here, we assume without deciding, that the plain-error doctrine controls our review of prosecutorial misconduct arising from the pretrial press conference.”

Under that standard the defendant has the burden to prove the existence an error that is plain. If he establishes error, the burden shifts to the state to demonstrate that it did not affect the defendant’s substantial rights. An error affects the defendant’s substantial rights if it was prejudicial and affected the outcome of the case.

The Supreme Court was convinced that there was no reasonable likelihood that the county attorney’s statements affected Parker’s substantial rights. None of the jurors were exposed to any pretrial publicity or had knowledge of Parker or his charges, none recognized him during the voir dire, and the evidence against Parker was strong. Even if Freeman’s statements were “problematic,” the court said, they did not affect Parker’s substantial rights.

Parker claimed he was impaired in questioning the jurors without using the words “good Samaritan,” but that could not have affected his substantial rights because the phrase was not used at trial, the court said.

Pretrial publicity

The court also was unable to find any evidence that the jurors were even exposed to pretrial publicity, let alone affected by it. The test was whether the jurors would be able to set aside their impressions and render an impartial verdict, which the defendant did not meet.

In a footnote, the court said, “Having concluded that Parker failed to establish that he was actually prejudiced by the district court’s denial of his motion to change venue, we need not consider what, if any, impact internet publicity has on our venue jurisprudence.”

Zone of privacy

The court then upheld the upward departure in Parker’s sentence because it was committed in the victim’s home, where he has an expectation of privacy, making the crime significantly more serious than typical. The court rejected Parker’s argument that another rationale should be present to add up to substantial and compelling circumstances necessary to render the crime significantly more serious and warranting an upward departure. The statute or the case law do not require such a rationale, the court said.

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