Witness IDs, gun evidence debated in UMD student's slaying
DULUTH — Attorneys sparred inside a Duluth courtroom Thursday over the identities of two key witnesses and the proposed testing of forensic evidence from a handgun in the investigation into February's fatal shooting in the East Hillside neighborhood.
The five suspects charged in connection with the slaying of 22-year-old University of Minnesota Duluth student William Andrew Grahek were in court for the first time since their arraignments in early March.
Sixth Judicial District Judge Mark Munger and a plethora of attorneys gathered in a crowded courtroom for about 90 minutes to discuss issues that have arisen in the already complex, tangled case.
Also present in the St. Louis County courtroom were friends and family members of both Grahek and the defendants. Added security measures were in place as they entered the courtroom.
Deandre Demetrius Davenport, 21, is accused of fatally shooting Grahek twice during an attempted robbery of drugs and cash at the victim's house, 510 E. 11th St.
Noah Duane Baker, 19, and Noah Anthony Charles King, 18, who allegedly accompanied him to the scene, also face murder and robbery charges. Tara Rai Baker, 22, who allegedly drove the suspects to the scene, also has been charged, as has 26-year-old Xavier Alfred Haywood, who investigators said arranged the robbery plot and helped the suspects initially avoid capture.
Grahek, the son of a St. Paul police sergeant, was a Twin Cities native, an Army reservist and a UMD club rugby player.
At the hearing, Scott Belfry, an attorney for Davenport, asked Munger to order the state to turn over the names and addresses of two "key and essential witnesses" whose names have been withheld by prosecutors, citing concerns for their safety.
Belfry told the judge that he can't provide effective counsel to his client without information about the witnesses.
"I do believe that we have a constitutional right to have access to these individuals," Belfry told the judge. "It's important that we have access to witnesses — assuming they want to speak to us."
The witnesses are known in court documents only as "Witness #1" and "Witness #2." Charging documents provide little information about how investigators obtained much of the evidence in the case.
However, Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Jessica Fralich said the state has complied with witness identification procedures. She said there are concerns for the safety of the witnesses, including one who is housed among four of the defendants at the St. Louis County Jail.
Fralich said nearly all information has been turned over to the defense, minus identities, and acknowledged that the state eventually will be forced to provide the witness information.
"This does not prejudice the defense at this early juncture," Fralich argued. "The state is prepared at some point to release the identities."
Steven Bergeson, a Minneapolis-based public defender representing King, said the lack of information impedes the defense's case by precluding him and fellow attorneys from researching the witnesses, looking into any criminal history and considering factors that should be presented to a jury.
He added: "I can't imagine that a witness who says they're fearful for their safety is going to get any less fearful as the case moves toward trial."
Defense attorneys also brought motions asking Munger to bar investigators from conducting forensic tests on two swabs obtained from a firearm allegedly used in the shooting.
Fralich said the samples are so small in size that BCA crime lab technicians have provided notice that testing could consume the entire samples.
Defense attorneys argued that they have the right to conduct "reasonable tests" on evidence — something that would be impossible if gun swabs are consumed.
"We believe it's unnecessary destruction of evidence," Belfry told the judge.
Fralich, however, said the defense is not entitled to "unfettered access to testing." She said defense attorneys can hire an expert to observe the BCA's testing of the samples.
"The defense does not have the right to prevent or preclude the testing of evidence," Fralich said.
Bergerson said simply being present at the testing isn't enough.
"We don't get to do our own testing," he said. "It's nothing like that."
Fralich, in turn, argued that evidentiary procedures have been followed in the handling of the forensic testing.
"It's akin to the defense coming in and saying you can't interview that witness, or you can't record that body camera video until we establish foundation," the prosecutor said. "That's not how it works."
Munger took both the witness identification and forensic testing issues under advisement, saying he would issue orders after attorneys submit written briefs on the motions.
Separately, the judge granted a motion from defense attorneys seeking access to the crime scene. Attorneys on both sides of the case, as well as police, said the property owner has been uncooperative and not allowed any access for investigatory follow-up.
Munger also will consider motions to reduce bail figures for Davenport and Tara Baker.
Belfry suggested lowering Davenport's bail from $1 million to approximately $90,000. He said Davenport grew up in Minnesota and has significant ties across the state. Davenport was seeking employment at the time of his arrest, and does not have means to post bail, Belfry said.
Baker's attorney, Sonia Sturdevant, said her client was born and raised in Duluth, has little criminal history and was employed before leaving her job when her child was hospitalized. Sturdevant asked the judge to lower Baker's $500,000 bail and refer her for pretrial release.
Davenport and Baker are in a relationship and have a 2-year-old child together — though a child protection case has been initiated in wake of the criminal charges.
Fralich and fellow prosecutor Vicky Wanta argued that the original bail settings were appropriate, citing the severity of the charges and allegations that Davenport and Baker were planning to leave the area before they were arrested.
Only Haywood, who is charged with aiding an offender to avoid arrest and had bail set significantly lower, has been able to post bond and be released from the St. Louis County Jail.
All five defendants will be back in court on June 30.