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Duluth murder case abruptly ends in mistrial

Aaron Demetrius Humphreys

DULUTH, Minn.—A surprise defense involving an alternative shooter derailed a Duluth murder trial almost as soon as it got underway Tuesday, Jan 23.

Sixth Judicial District Judge David Johnson declared a mistrial in the case of 43-year-old Aaron Demetrius Humphreys before the first witness even took the stand. Prosecutors objected to the opening statement from defense attorney Kassius Benson, who argued that it was another man who fatally shot 47-year-old Eric Wayne Burns at the front door of Lincoln Park's Bedrock Bar in October 2016.

Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Nate Stumme told Johnson that Benson never provided notice of the alternative perpetrator defense, hindering the prosecution's right to a fair trial. Benson had only previously identified self-defense as a possible trial argument.

"Had we known, the state would've approached this case entirely differently," Stumme told the judge. "We have a bullet that's never been forensically tested. We have a bullet casing that's never been forensically tested. The name of an alternative perpetrator would've been investigated for motive, alibi, criminal history. We would need to follow up with witnesses for additional information."

A 15-member jury had been empaneled Monday, Jan. 22, and the state's first witnesses were at the courthouse ready to testify when the motion was brought — a consideration Johnson said he did not take lightly. But the judge said the prosecution had every reason to believe Humphreys would be relying on self-defense.

"It made perfect sense that they wouldn't have done some of the forensic testing and follow-up investigation," Johnson said. "Therefore, I don't see any way the state can get a fair trial at this point."

Johnson rescheduled the trial for May 14, at which time a new jury must be selected.

"I'm very disappointed that justice is delayed here, but sometimes it is necessary to get the right result," Stumme told the Duluth News Tribune after the hearing. "At the end of the day, there are rules we need to follow."

Benson opposed the mistrial motion, arguing for the case to proceed as scheduled. Citing the gravity of the case, he contended to the judge that the prosecution should have conducted forensic testing and other investigatory work regardless of anticipated defense arguments.

"The way we looked at it, Mr. Humphreys was prepared to tell the truth about how it happened," Benson said outside the courtroom. "But we'll come back in May prepared for trial."

Humphreys is charged with intentional second-degree murder, being a felon in possession of a firearm and fifth-degree assault. He remains in the St. Louis County Jail as he awaits the new trial.