Quite contrary

Our adversarial system of justice is under attack from within.

The importance of our adversarial system

We should all be proud to live in a country where people are considered innocent until proven guilty. Our justice system is built on a foundation of fairness and balance, using the well-conceived “adversarial” system where each party is tasked with representing their respective interests by presenting evidence and arguments before a neutral judge and a jury of peers.

The balanced approach provided by an adversarial model ensures that our system of justice maintains its reputation as the gold standard of fairness and due process. Unfortunately, our system is under attack — from within. The balance is being undermined, and justice is suffering as a result.

The case

In 2004, Marvin Haynes was proven guilty of first-degree murder, committed during the armed robbery of a flower shop in north Minneapolis.

Police developed probable cause that Haynes was the shooter and arrested him. Two eyewitnesses picked Haynes out of photo lineups (including the victim’s sister, exclaiming, “Oh my God, that’s him,” upon seeing Haynes’ photo). Both witnesses later identified Haynes in an in-person lineup and in court to varying degrees. Several of Haynes’ friends and relatives gave police statements indicating Haynes had become involved in armed robberies, that he was intent on committing a robbery the day of the murder, that he had been carrying a chrome revolver in the weeks leading up to the murder (the type of gun used in this murder), and that he made comments about “shooting an old white man” contemporaneously with the murder at the flower shop.

The county attorney’s office reviewed the evidence and independently agreed Our adversarial system of justice is under attack from within. Quite Contrary that probable cause existed to charge Haynes with murder. Upon which a Hennepin County Grand Jury listened to the evidence against Haynes and agreed that probable cause existed to indict him with first-degree murder. A respected Hennepin County District Court Judge presided over evidentiary hearings and the trial and made legal decisions to ensure Haynes received a fair trial.

Haynes made no pre-trial appeals regarding the evidence presented against him and he was tried before a jury of his peers in 2005. The jury listened to testimony, reviewed evidence during the trial, and determined Haynes was guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

Haynes received an automatic appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2007 during which it heard arguments from Haynes’ attorney. There was no claim or argument that the eyewitness identifications of Haynes were problematic during that process. The Supreme Court denied Haynes’ appeal, ruling the district court had properly ruled on issues of law during the trial, and that there was no prosecutorial misconduct in the case.

Haynes was sentenced to life in prison.

Enter Mary Moriarty

Fast-forward to 2022. Mary Moriarty, the former chief public defender in Hennepin County, announced her intention to run for Hennepin County Attorney, the county’s chief prosecutor. Many saw this as a disaster in the making and warned the electorate, to no avail, against putting Moriarty in this position.

During the endorsement process, the Star Tribune said of Moriarty: “…we’re concerned that her approach doesn’t adequately emphasize public safety. Moriarty also brings baggage after her stint as chief public defender ended in controversy related to social media posts, her managerial style, and tense relationships with other leaders in the criminal justice system.”

And it continues, “…the Editorial Board remains concerned about her ability to transition from defender to prosecutor and to provide effective leadership for the office.”

Despite these concerns, Moriarty took office in January 2023. Within months, Moriarty made clear she would be undermining the adversarial system of justice in Hennepin County by joining forces with advocacy groups and defense attorneys and using “science” to bring about her vision of justice and public safety in Hennepin County.

No fewer than a dozen families and victim advocacy groups have since spoken publicly against Moriarty and her decisions to either not prosecute, under-prosecute, or seek to overturn convictions of violent criminals adjudicated decades earlier.

Moriarty’s actions have been outrageous and undermine Minnesota’s public safety and justice systems in 2023. Yet she asks the public to deny what they have both seen and experienced, and instead believe — on her insistence — that she is a righteous arbiter of justice.

The exoneration of Marvin Haynes

In June 2023, Haynes filed a Petition for Post-Conviction Relief, despite being over 15 years past the cutoff to legally do so. Moriarty waived the statutory time bar and the procedural bar on Haynes’ petition. Given these concessions by Moriarty, the court scheduled a post-conviction evidentiary hearing later that fall.

Those in attendance at the hearing have expressed to my sources that it was apparent Moriarty’s office did not act as an adversarial check and balance against Haynes’ arguments and offered passive and limited cross-examination of witnesses and evidence presented on behalf of Haynes.

Following the hearing, Moriarty and the Innocence Project joined together to draft a six-page order that claimed Haynes had been denied due process “because his conviction relied on constitutionally defective eyewitness identification evidence.” Moriarty agreed that “the interest of justice would be served by dismissing with prejudice all charges against Petitioner in this matter” and to vacate his murder conviction.

Judge William Koch signed that order, and Haynes was released to the street following a hearing held for that purpose in the Hennepin County Government Center.

This revisionist approach to evaluating decades-old convictions that were properly tried and for which multiple appeals have been considered and rejected has been particularly troubling. It’s a dangerous path that needs to be closed for all but the most persuasive and clear-cut cases involving, for example, indisputable DNA evidence.

Attacking eyewitness identifications decades after the fact, especially when those identifications were not called into question contemporaneously with the trial, is just pure nonsense. Tragically, it is an attack on and serves to undermine the value of this critical evidence going forward.

The emergence of progressive prosecutors across the country, many of whom were former defense attorneys, has resulted in the inappropriate teaming of prosecutors and defense attorneys in support of the defendant’s arguments. This is overtly problematic.

A justice system in which the defense attorney teamed with the prosecution to help make the state’s arguments against the defendant is no justice system at all. There would be revolt, and rightly so. Why, then, would anyone believe it’s appropriate for the prosecutor to abdicate making arguments on behalf of the state, while, in turn, making arguments on behalf of the defendant?

Haynes and all criminal defendants deserve a competent and vigorous defense. Our system depends on it. But when prosecutors intentionally abdicate their adversarial role, balance is destroyed, and justice suffers.

We should expect more of the same as more progressive-minded defense attorneys seek key prosecutorial positions.