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Court of Appeals affirms sentence in shooting of activist’s grandson

Barbara L. Jones//November 17, 2022

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Court of Appeals affirms sentence in shooting of activist’s grandson

Barbara L. Jones//November 17, 2022

The Minnesota Court of Appeals has upheld a conviction and sentencing for second-degree intentional murder in the shooting death of Kevin Beasley, the grandson of community activist Spike Moss.

A Hennepin County District Court judge denied the defense’s request for a downward durational departure and sentenced Dontae White to 307 months in prison, the lowest number of the presumptive sentence under the state sentencing guidelines. The Court of Appeals affirmed. It also turned back the defendant’s arguments of insufficient evidence and prosecutorial misconduct.

The opinion in State v. White, written by Judge Michelle Larkin, identifies the shooting victim as K.B. However, a press release and contemporaneous news report named him as Beasley, 27, and identified him as Moss’s grandson.

The shooting occurred on April 17, 2020, at a “quarantine party” at Beasley’s home. Attendees were charged an admission fee and were checked for weapons. White sneaked a gun into the party by hiding it in his underwear. A dispute arose between Beasley and another guest, G.S., White’s brother. White walked across the room toward G.S., and shot Beasley, claiming Beasley had aimed his gun at G.S.

Circumstantial evidence standard

White did not dispute that he shot Beasley but argued that he did so because Beasley pointed a gun at G.S. The jury was unconvinced.

The defendant claiming self-defense must introduce evidence to support the claim. The court said White met that burden and then the state must disprove one or more of the self-defense elements. In the case of deadly force, the actor must reasonably believe he or another is exposed to great bodily harm or death. Minn. Stat. sec. 609.065.

The court will then defer to the fact-finder’s credibility determinations. “We will not disturb a guilty verdict if the fact-finder, acting with due regard for the presumption of innocence and requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, could have reasonably concluded that the state proved the defendant’s guilt,” Larkin wrote.

However, a heightened standard of review applies when the state relies on circumstantial evidence, the court continued. White’s challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence failed under that standard.

Applying the standard, the court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict and determines whether the circumstances are consistent with guilt and inconsistent with any rational hypothesis other than guilt. “We do not defer to the fact-finders’ choice between reasonable inferences,” Larkin wrote.

Two state eyewitnesses testified that Beasley did not display his firearm before White shot him. A forensic pathologist testified that Beasley died from multiple gunshot wounds, including seven entry wounds. White testified that he may have fired eight rounds.

“Because the circumstances proved are inconsistent with White’s hypothesis of innocence, we conclude that the state proved beyond a reasonable doubt that White did not act in self-defense. We therefore do not disturb the verdict,” the court said.

Prosecutorial error

White next challenged the prosecutors’ closing argument, which he said compared him to Ted Bundy, a serial murderer. He did not object to the argument at trial. With no objection, the defendant must establish plain error by the prosecutor and then the burden shifts to the state to prove there is no reasonable likelihood that the absence of the misconduct would have significantly affected the jury’s verdict.

The state acknowledged that the reference to Ted Bundy was error and likely plain, but also argued that it did not have a significant impact on the verdict. The court agreed, looking at the pervasiveness of the state’s improper suggestions and the strength of the evidence against the defendant, which was strong.

“In context, it seems that the reference to Ted Bundy—though inappropriate—was offered to show that a person’s appearance may not be a good indicator of what he is capable of doing,” Larkin wrote. “[T]he state has met its burden to show that there is no reasonable likelihood that the alleged misconduct significantly affected the verdict.”

In a footnote, the court said that it was not necessary to address the error to ensure the fairness and integrity of the judicial proceedings.

Lastly, the court upheld White’s sentence. A downward departure is justified only if the defendant’s conduct was significantly less serious than that typically involved in the commission of the offense, the court said.  A judge is not required to give reasons when it imposes the presumptive sentence.”

The court did not appear to consider White’s argument for departure based on unspecified childhood trauma. It also said that his argument that his offense was less serious than a typical second-degree intentional murder was not supported by the record, noting the similar circumstances in other cases have justified upward durational departures.

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