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Law clerk Chase Passauer was killed April 7, 2016, in a law office on the second floor of the historic Dacotah Building on Selby Avenue in St. Paul. (File photo: Bill Klotz)
Law clerk Chase Passauer was killed April 7, 2016, in a law office on the second floor of the historic Dacotah Building on Selby Avenue in St. Paul. (File photo: Bill Klotz)

Was law clerk’s slaying premeditated?

The murder in 2016 of Chase Passauer by a client of the lawyer he worked for rocked the Twin Cities and especially the legal community.

Ryan Petersen told others he was going to shoot his lawyer, Dan Adkins, and went Adkins’ office and found only Passauer, a law clerk. Passauer told him he didn’t know where Adkins was. Petersen then shot him eight times and left the office, leaving Passauer to bleed to death.

At a bench trial, the only issue was premeditation, an element of first-degree murder. The state argued, and the court agreed, that the crime was premeditated and that Petersen shot a different victim. The state also argued that Peterson used a .40 caliber Smith & Wesson semi- automatic handgun and had to pull the trigger for each shot, giving time for premeditation.

Ramsey County District Court Judge William Leary found that Petersen’s girlfriend credibly testified that Petersen told her he was going to shoot Adkins and that her testimony was sufficient to establish premeditation beyond a reasonable doubt. He also found that Petersen had a long time to consider his options and decided on violence. Peterson shot from different locations, including three times through a plate- glass window on his way out of the office. The court did not rely on any evidence of post-shooting conduct.

Leary found him guilty of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and possession of a handgun by an ineligible person and sentenced him to life without parole.

On Tuesday, Dec. 12, the Supreme Court heard arguments on the issue of premeditation.

Transferred intent?

Assistant State Public Defender Rochelle Winn began her argument with reference to the doctrine of transferred intent, or, as she termed it in her brief, the “legal fiction” of transferred intent. Under Minn. Stat. sec. 609.185, premeditation will transfer with intent if the perpetrator premeditated the murder of an intended victim but accidentally killed an unintended victim. She said that the state and the trial court focused on the interaction between Petersen and Adkins that preceded the murder and “transferred” Petersen’s intent to Passauer.

Because Petersen did not shoot at Adkins and accidentally kill Passauer, the theory of transferred intent is inapplicable, she said. “You can’t put intent in a blame bank,” she said at the close of her rebuttal.

Starting out, the court lost no time in expressing doubt about transferred intent. Justice G. Barry Anderson immediately questioned Winn about the other indicia of intent, including multiple shots from different locations, wondering if transferred intent was necessary to the case. “Isn’t that sufficient evidence of premeditation right there?” he asked.

Winn replied that the court could not avoid the issue of transferred intent because the judge’s findings on premeditation were about Adkins. Multiple shots alone were insufficient to sustain a finding of premeditation, as the court has previously held in other cases, she said.

The trial court specifically found that Petersen was referring to Adkins when he said he was going to shoot his lawyer, Winn replied. The lower court found that he killed Passauer in anger, and the Supreme Court should not substitute its findings for the trial court, she said. “You are bound by his findings,” she said. And if the court defers to the findings, it is squarely “in the land of second-degree murder,” Winn also argued.

The court has never said that moving from one point to another constitutes premeditation, Winn said. A semi-automatic gun is not enough either, she said. “This court would have to rule that premeditation can be found by use of a Smith & Wesson semi-automatic handgun,” she said.

“It’s very important on this continuum that there is a line that this court draws,” Winn argued. “There has to be some amount of time that separates a second-degree murder from a first degree murder.”

Time, place and motive

“This is a very sad case but it’s not a close one,” Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Thomas Ragatz said.

He began by taking issue with the defendant’s argument that the Supreme Court was “stuck” with the theory of the trial court. When the court is reviewing for sufficiency of evidence, there is no law that says the appellate court has to look at the evidence the same way the trial court did, Ragatz argued. “There’s no deference on a legal theory, there’s only deference on facts and we’re not fighting about facts,” he said.

There is sufficient evidence of premeditation based on the way the shooting occurred and what appellant did after the murder, Ragatz continued. “There has to have been a pause between shots,” he said, because five of them were in the reception area and three were from the hallway. That’s the key relevant evidence, Ragatz said.

Peterson didn’t just empty his gun but made decisions about when to fire. Furthermore, all eight of the shots hit Passauer, meaning that Petersen had to aim, Ragatz said. He hit him in the chest, a vulnerable area of the body, which also demonstrates premeditation.

Post-murder conduct is relevant to the issue of premeditation under case law, Ragatz pointed out. Petersen fled the scene without calling for help.

He told people after the event that he had killed his lawyer, suggesting that he was using the term lawyer to refer to his “legal team,” Ragataz said.

This isn’t really a case of transferred intent, Ragatz continued. The question is how broadly premeditation is defined. There is sufficient evidence of premeditation here because there is unity of time, place and motive, he said. “This was a plan that was carried out.”

Ragatz continued, “He could have changed his mind along the way, he didn’t, and that’s why he should be punished more heavily than someone who spontaneously decided to commit a murder.”

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