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Supreme Court requires evidence review in post-conviction case

Expressing frustration with the District Court, the Supreme Court prophylactically reversed a denial of claims for postconviction relief in a murder trial because the judge rejected affidavit testimony as not credible without holding an evidentiary hearing.

“We have repeatedly instructed postconviction courts that they may not find a postconviction affiant unreliable without first holding an evidentiary hearing to assess the affiant’s credibility,” wrote Justice David Lillehaug for the unanimous court. Justice Paul Thissen did not participate.

It sent the case, Andersen v. State, back to the trial court with instructions to assume that the facts in the affidavits are true, construe them in the light most favorable to Andersen and then assess whether an evidentiary hearing is required.

If the court decides to have a hearing, it must be scheduled and decided promptly, the Supreme Court said. If not, the court must explain in detail why Andersen is entitled to no relief.

Justice is a process, not merely a result, the court pointed out.

Newly discovered evidence

Andersen was convicted of first-degree murder in 2008 for the shooting death of Chad Swedberg in White Earth, Becker County. His conviction was affirmed on appeal and a 2010 postconviction petition was denied. This second postconviction petition was brought in 2016, alleging the existence of 16 pieces of newly discovered evidence.

Andersen argued that the new evidence satisfied the newly-discovered-evidence and interest-of-justice exceptions to the postconviction statute’s 2-year limitations period. In the alternative, he requested a new trial in the interests of justice.

Two affidavits are in issue because the trial court deemed them inherently unreliable and inherently dubious. The court also said that it did not have supervisory power to order a new trial in the interests of justice.

One of the affidavits was from a witness named Stacy Weaver stating that Swedberg’s wife and son were seen driving between 7:30 and 8 a.m. on the morning of the murder, which was inconsistent with earlier evidence. The other was from a witness named Geraldine Bellanger that implicated another person, Al Baker. That affidavit referred to a supposed confession by Baker.

The court said the statement about the wife and son in the car was too implausible to require a hearing given that all other testimony contradicted it. It also said that the alleged confession was not cited by Andersen in his brief and the Bellanger affidavit was unsupported by evidence.

Other “newly-discovered” evidence was barred by the statute of limitations or was impeachment testimony, the court said.

More information about the case is available at kenandersenisinnocent.com.

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About Barbara L. Jones

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