Newly-released video shows Hennepin County courthouse escape

- It’s been more than two years since a defendant escaped Hennepin County’s Government Center following a guilty verdict for attempted murder. Police found Michael Henderson the next day.

Henderson ran out of the courtroom and spent about two and a half minutes making his way through the Government Center’s stairs, elevator, and halls, before leaving through an emergency door.

“He was a savvy young man. I don’t know he knew where he was going, but the path he took was pretty ingenious,” Major Darrell Huggett, who oversees courtroom deputies, told Fox 9.

The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office made several changes to security following the escape, including:

  • Deputies regularly conduct escape and hostile response training.
  • Deputies increased communication with courthouse staff and security.
  • Deputies changed their positions in courtrooms during verdicts and sentencing.
  • Deputies are better aware of emergency doors that never lock.
  • Deputies changed their policy on restraining defendants.

One policy change was not without controversy: increasing the shackling of defendants. Hennepin County has long had an unofficial policy of not restraining defendants in the courtroom, unless a deputy had a particular concern. (Note: the policy pertains to when juries are absent. By law, with few exceptions, defendants are never restrained in front of juries.) But in Fall 2014, the Sheriff’s Office started shackling all defendants in their custody — a decision that would soon be countered by the county’s judges.

“It was a complete surprise when this became an issue, because the system, the practice we’ve had in Hennepin County, has been working for decades,” Mary Moriarty, the county’s chief public defender, told Fox 9.

Moriarty believes the restraints opened the presumed-innocent defendants to implicit bias.

“Imagine this, if you were a judge making a decision about what should happen to a client, whether it’s a bench trial and you’re making that decision, or whether it’s sentencing, and a client is standing before you in an orange jumpsuit or any kind of shackles or restraints, is there not the potential for bias there?” Moriarty said.

The bench agreed with public defenders’ concerns.

“Before the sheriff was expressing concerns, there had been a longstanding, unwritten policy that we did not restrain anyone in the courtroom,” Judge Ivy Bernhardson, the county’s acting chief judge, told Fox 9. “Everyone is entitled to being a dignified presence in the courtroom, and therefore, handcuffs and orange jump suits don’t exactly qualify for that.”

Judges made the tradition of no restraints an official policy, one now in conflict with the policy of the Sheriff’s Office. “We never changed our policy, we just wrote it down,”Judge Bernhardson said.

Major Huggett says the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office will obey any judge’s decision on shackling. “The bench has their own policy. And we have ours. Of course, we’re always going to abide by the judge’s orders. So if a judge tells us they don’t want a defendant restrained in their courtroom, we’ll abide by that.”

Moriarty said the sheriff’s policy would not have prevented Henderson’s escape because he was in front of a jury, when the law requires defendants be without restraints.

“The Henderson case seemed to me more about how the client got past the deputies, and down the stairwell, and that kind of thing. It wasn’t about whether he should have been shackled, because, by law, he could not have been,” Moriarty told Fox 9.

Major Huggett says he hopes to eventually have all defendants “secured” in the courtroom, and believes “we’re moving in that direction.” And he said “at some point, we’re going to meet in the middle.” As for where that middle is, Huggett responded, “I don’t know.”

Most Minnesota counties restrain in-custody defendants when inside the courtroom, but the largest, Hennepin and Ramsey counties, do not.

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