Zaria McKeever murder case: Gov. Walz assigns AG Ellison to take over prosecution

Governor Walz says he is assigning Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison to take over the prosecution for the Zaria McKeever murder case after an outcry from McKeever's family and other over plea deals offered by the Hennepin County Attorney.

In a message on Thursday, Governor Walz announced he would use his authority to assign Ellison's office to the case, following a request by Ellison.

McKeever was killed in November 2022 after police say two teens, under the direction of McKeever's ex-boyfriend Erick Haynes, broke into McKeever's apartment to kill her new boyfriend. However, during the home invasion, police say McKeever was the one shot and killed.

The family of Zaria McKeever and community advocates have begged officials to intervene in the case after two teen suspects were offered plea deals by Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty that could have only put them behind bars for two years in a youth facility and probation until they turn 21. Before Moriarty took office in January, former county attorney Mike Freeman was preparing to charge the teens as adults. Moriarity's office reversed course on that.

Wednesday, Ellison asked the governor for permission to take over the case.

"My heart breaks for the McKeever family," writes Governor Walz in a statement on Thursday. "We will not tolerate violent crime in Minnesota."

"I have absolute confidence in Attorney General Ellison," the statement adds.  "He has requested this important case and stepped up once again to serve the people of Minnesota. I know Keith will work tirelessly to seek justice and bring a modicum of peace to the grieving family." 

A plea hearing was scheduled for Friday morning for the 15-year-old who pulled the trigger in McKeever's death. It's not totally clear what will happen on Friday, but presumably, the previous deal is now off the table.

As for the other teen, his deal has already been signed by a judge, and he'll serve two years for the crime.

Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty reacts

In a lengthy statement on Thursday, Moriarty blasted the decision, writing in part:

"At the end of the day, prosecutors must consider the victims’ wishes, the factors of youth, and what protects public safety in both the short and the long term. We must do everything in our power to reach what we think is a just outcome. Not everyone will agree what that is, but the people of this county elected me to make that final and difficult call. In this case, we believe our request for an initial juvenile sentence, along with the potential for a long adult prison sentence, gives us the best chance to protect public safety by investing in rehabilitation while still having accountability.

"Prosecuting a juvenile for homicide without seeking an adult certification is not unprecedented in Minnesota. But the Attorney General’s decision to insert himself in a prosecution when an elected County Attorney is actively prosecuting a case is unprecedented.

"Inserting himself in these cases simply because he disagrees with the choice I was elected to make is deeply troubling and should alarm prosecutors across the state. This decision undermines the longstanding constitutional authority, autonomy, and responsibility of elected prosecutors. It threatens the very core of a local prosecutor’s well-settled discretion and role as an elected official accountable to the people to prosecute crime in the county. This is why the Minnesota County Attorney’s Association unanimously voted to oppose the Attorney General asking the Governor to give him the case, despite the Attorney General asking for their support. This is also why they oppose the Governor exercising his authority when a prosecutor is actively prosecuting a case."

Ellison's statement on the decision

In his own statement, AG Ellison added:

"My request to Governor Walz to assign the prosecution of this case to my office is one I did not make lightly. I requested that Hennepin County refer the prosecution of this case to my office, as the law provides, but they declined to do so. The Governor’s power under state law to assign criminal cases to the Attorney General has been used and should be used very sparingly, and I do not expect to make a request like it again.  

"A prosecutor is a minister of justice, and justice is comprised of both accountability and mercy. While I share the belief that too many juveniles are involved in the adult criminal-justice system, accountability for the seriousness of this crime has been missing in this case. I respect that county attorneys are duly elected by their constituents to exercise their discretion; however, the disposition of the juvenile shooter that Hennepin County has proposed in this case is disproportionate to the seriousness of the crime committed and falls far short of the family’s and community’s expectations for justice and safety. My office will pursue justice in all its aspects in the prosecution of this case."