John Liebenstein memorial

John Liebenstein’s memorial, shown here, is located at the exit for County Road 1 off of I-35. Here, Liebenstein was killed by a stolen car driven by Timothy Chambers. At the time, Chambers was sentenced to life in prison with no chance for supervised release. On Friday, Chambers was granted that possibility after a Supreme Court ruling in March. (Gunnar Olson/Daily News)

As 37-year-old Timothy Chambers walked into a Rice County courtroom on Friday morning, he saw dozens of uniformed law enforcement officers seated in the rows behind him.

He began to cry.

Nearly 20 years ago, Chambers killed one of their friends, partners and family members. After stealing a car in the cities, he led police on a high-speed chase southbound on Interstate 35. At home for lunch, John Liebenstein, a Rice County deputy, heard the call and responded, parking his car at the top of the Country Road 1 exit ramp. Some 15 minutes later, Chambers, driving a stolen Lincoln Continental, barreled up the ramp at speeds upward of 80 mph. Before Liebenstein could react, the Continental slammed into his squad car, which in turn struck Liebenstein.

Less than an hour after walking into the courtroom on Friday, Chambers departed with a slightly different sentence, now having the possibility of supervised release in May 2026.

Chambers has spent half of his life in prison, after being sentenced at 17, and didn’t have much hope of ever getting out. But after the United States Supreme Court struck down on automatic life sentences with no chance of parole for juveniles, Rice County court received a remand order from the U.S. District Court.

Chambers was one of eight in Minnesota to have the opportunity to argue the possibility of parole, one of 1,200 nationwide.

Friday’s hearing re-opened a wound for many, as members of Liebenstein’s family and his colleagues read victim impact statements for the courtroom filled with blue and maroon uniforms.

“You killed a husband, son, father, uncle and brother to law enforcement by your poor choice,” said Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn. “I will never forget that day when I pulled up on scene as they were loading John [Liebenstein] into an ambulance.”

For Liebenstein’s family, a theme of missing out on seeing his family grow up prevailed through their statements.

“I was so young,” said Liebenstein’s daughter, Jessie Christensen. “We were robbed of normal, happy childhoods. We were forced to grow up so quickly.”

Christensen lamented how her husband was never able to meet her father, and his absence from pivotal points in her life, like her wedding, left a hole in the hearts of their family.

“He was taken from us before he could be a part of his children’s and grandchildren’s lives,” said Christensen before concluding with pointed words toward Chambers. “Not everyone deserves a second chance.”

Liebenstein’s other daughter, Jillian Kuntz, was but 7 years old when her father was killed.

“I now struggle whenever I say goodbye to a loved one,” she said. “There is a constant feeling of someone missing.”

Jordan Liebenstein, Liebenstein’s oldest child, spoke about the impact Chambers’ actions had on his own children.

“My boys will never get to meet their grandpa,” said Liebenstein. “I’ll have to explain to them what kind of person would kill another for no reason.”

In addition to the statements from family that were largely reflective of Liebenstein’s life, former Rice County Sgt. Barry Cummins gave a statement intended mostly for Chambers’ ears.

“You took John’s life in a senseless manner,” said Cummins. “What I have never heard from you is that you are sorry for what you did. I hope you have a lifetime of reflection and sleepless nights thinking about what you’ve done.”

Chambers, who was given the opportunity to speak before the new sentencing was granted by Judge Thomas Neuville, explained that Cummins’ wishes have already been granted.

“Please understand that I am not that stupid kid anymore,” said Chambers at the end of his address. “After two long years of sleepless nights, I’ve joined the church and started living a sober life.”

Sobbing throughout his speech, to the point where he was unable to get out the words, Chambers said he had been waiting 20 years to apologize to the Liebenstein family after failing to do so because of “shock and, unfortunately denial” at his first sentencing.

“I had no intention to take a life,” he said. “I struggle daily because of what I’ve done to all of you. I am so sorry for taking your dad away from you.”

Chambers’ defense attorney, Julie Glen, called what Chambers did tragic, devastating and unimaginable, but told the courtroom that Chambers had “matured” and expressed “remorse” for what he did 20 years prior.

The ruling

Following a three-week trial in 1997, Chambers was found guilty of first-degree murder of a peace officer engaged in official duties.

Then in March of last year, the Rice County District Court received the remand order from the U.S. District Court, which had vacated Chambers’ life-time sentence without a possibility of parole and remanded the matter to Rice County for re-sentencing.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Miller vs. Alabama, ruled that laws requiring youth convicted of murder to spend the rest of their life in prison violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The following year, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in a split decision that Chambers’ sentence of mandatory life without the possibility of parole should be upheld because a U.S. Supreme Court ruling did not retroactively apply to Chambers.

But, since the U.S. Supreme Court made its ruling retroactive in March 2016, the mandatory life sentence without parole for Chambers was revoked.

On Friday morning, Judge Neuville noted that his court was, “bound to follow those precedents.”

He ruled that Chambers would receive a life sentence with the possibility of supervised release after 30 years. The court also found that Chambers has been in custody since May 3, 1996, the day of the tragic incident.

May 3, 1996

According to court documents, in 1996, Chambers, went to the mall in Prior Lake to fill out a job application. As he was leaving, he stole a 1991 Lincoln that was parked in the parking lot.

After taking the car, Chambers led law enforcement on a 35-mile pursuit at speeds that reached up to 110 mph on the interstate, according to documents. Chambers eventually slammed into an unmarked squad car in Rice County.

That squad car belonged to Deputy Liebenstein who heard about the pursuit on his scanner, and led him to set up a roadblock at the top of County Road 1 exit ramp, according to court documents.

Witnesses watched Chambers accelerate up the ramp and saw Chambers looking straight ahead, and at the top of the ramp, the Lincoln collided with Liebenstein’s squad car.

Despite the 12-foot space available for Chambers to steer around the squad car, the Lincoln hit the passenger’s side of the squad car directly between the front and rear wheels, documents say. Liebenstein was killed instantly.

On Friday, that day was brought back to life for many.

“When I think about John [Liebenstein], I think about how proud he’d be of his adult children,” said Jean Liebenstein, John’s wife.

Liebenstein then directed her words at Chambers, saying, “You were in control of your own actions that day.”

Sheila Luttring, a secretary at the Rice County Sheriff’s Office during Liebenstein’s career, also had some choice words for Chambers calling him “cruel,” “a crybaby,” “selfish” and having “total disregard for human life.”

She recalled having daily, early morning chats with Liebenstein long before his shift was due to begin. She spoke of his work with children and his personality as a “fun-loving, soft-hearted Christian.”

Luttring then looked to Chambers.

“Someday you will be judged again, but by a higher authority,” she said.

Aged by two decades in prison, a balding and bearded Chambers now faces at least another 10 years behind bars at Oak Park Heights. There, he indicated, his reflection will continue.

“When I was a kid, I had no respect for anything or anyone,” said Chambers in his statement on Friday. “I have caused so much hurt in my young life. Sometimes, I felt I should have died instead.”

Gunnar Olson covers city government, public safety and business for the Faribault Daily News. Reach him at (507) 333-3128, at golson@faribault.com, or follow him on Twitter @fdnGunnar.

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