The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office is blocking the release of the police body-worn camera footage shown at the July trial of a St. Paul man who was acquitted after he shot at a Minneapolis SWAT team in self defense.
But three potential candidates for Hennepin County attorney say they would support releasing the bodycam footage in a case that is emerging as an important test of Minnesota’s open records law.
In the chaotic days after the police murder of George Floyd, Jaleel Stallings was shot with “less lethal” rubber bullets but said he didn’t know the assailants were police officers because they were in a darkened, unmarked van and started firing on him immediately after coming into view at 14th Avenue as their van crept down Lake Street. He was acquitted in July by a Hennepin County jury of all eight charges, including two counts of attempted second-degree murder.
The case was the subject of a Sept. 1 Reformer story.
Stallings’ attorney, Eric Rice of St. Paul, obtained two hours of bodycam video for pre-trial hearings and the trial, and is asking Hennepin County District Judge William Koch to exempt the bodycam evidence from a 2016 standing order preventing Rice from releasing them to the public.
Hennepin County prosecutors would not agree to release Rice from the restrictions, and the issue will be discussed during a Sept. 20 hearing. Rice also sought all the bodycam videos from the case through an open records request with the city of Minneapolis. He narrowed his request to portions of officers’ redacted bodycam videos of only the portion involving Stallings. He obtained four redacted videos Sept. 1 and provided them to the Reformer for a followup story, but the city says it’s not legally obligated to release any more.
Rice is still seeking permission to release all the bodycam video played in court. Rice said in an interview that a consequence of Stallings’ acquittal is that the exhibits were returned to the defense and prosecution, and so the only way the public can see it is if a judge OKs it.
Three possible candidates to replace Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who is not running for reelection, all said his office erred in prosecuting Stallings, based on the bodycam footage that has been released so far, and the judge should allow the videos to be released.
Former Chief Hennepin County Public Defender Mary Moriarty, who is considering running for Hennepin County attorney, said prosecutors should not have charged Stallings. Rather, she said, prosecutors should have considered charging the officers with excessive force, based on the bodycam video that has been released so far.
“What we can see in the video is him lying face down, having given himself up, and police coming and beating him to the point where he suffered what would be considered at least a third-degree felony assault,” she said. “If there wasn’t a bodycam in this case, we would ask ourselves, would Mr. Stallings have been acquitted?”
She said the county attorney should support releasing the rest of the footage.
“We would ask ourselves, what is it that the county attorney’s office doesn’t want the public to see?” she said. “Why wouldn’t you do that and be transparent, if you believe that is appropriate for you to charge?”
Minnesota House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, who is also considering a run for top county prosecutor, also urged Freeman to support release the videos.
“Transparency is critical for public trust in law enforcement,” he said. “The Hennepin County attorney’s office should release as much evidence as the law allows.”
Winkler has said the excessive force in the bodycam videos was “completely indefensible,” and Freeman’s decision to prosecute Stallings seemed “highly dubious” based on the evidence released.
Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, who said he’ll be announcing soon whether he plans to run for county attorney, also said he wouldn’t have prosecuted Stallings.
“I don’t know how you look at that evidence and you try that case,” he said. “It furthers the narrative and adds to the distrust that permeates through Black communities with the criminal justice system.”
Absent the bodycam video, Stallings would not have been acquitted, because it corroborated his defense, Frazier said.
He said the prosecution should support releasing the videos in the interest of transparency and rebuilding trust with the Black community and other people of color.
“There are still moments where you can make decisions that can be that moment to turn toward being more transparent, and finding ways to say to the community, ‘You know, we made a mistake. Now let’s find a way to start working forward to see if we can change the perception and change the relationship that we have,’ and releasing the rest of the data — the rest of that footage — could be a way to do that.”
Separately, Assistant Minneapolis City Attorney Caroline Bachun said in a court filing that the city doesn’t have the video footage as it was presented in court, and the city isn’t required to recreate it under the open records law.
People who are in the bodycam video can get copies of the video in which they appear when the case is inactive, but not videos in which they aren’t present, so the city said Stallings can get redacted video, but only those in which Stallings appeared. Moriarty said the city is also arguing that conversations between officers should be redacted, which she disagrees with.
Rice, Stalling’s attorney, argued access serves the public interest and is important to Stallings.
“These interests are particularly strong in this case where government agents provoked the alleged criminal activity and misrepresented their involvement,” Rice wrote in a Friday filing. “It is essential that Stallings is permitted to show — and the public be permitted to observe — the evidence that caused him to stand trial, and ultimately be acquitted, for attempted murder.”