Man who committed crime goes free, man who abetted him behind bars

A man accused of murder got to walk free after a jury found him not guilty. But the man who pleaded to “aiding and abetting” the murder is behind bars. The strange results, arising in a state Court of Appeals case this week, illustrate the risks of plea deals.

On June 26, 2013, Damin Shufford asked Adaiah Townsend if he could borrow his gun so he could rob someone. Townsend let Shufford borrow the gun. According to police, later that day, Shufford asked Townsend to meet him at an apartment complex in New Hope, and told him the “situation went sour, and he had to slump the guy,” meaning he killed the person. 

Prosecutors charged Shufford with murder, and Townsend with aiding and abetting the murder. However, Townsend agreed to a plea deal: pleading guilty to aiding and abetting an offender after the fact in exchange for testifying against Shufford in a jury trial.

Townsend testified, but a jury found Shufford not guilty. Townsend asked if he could withdraw his guilty plea, but a judge denied the request. And this week, the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the judge’s decision, writing “while it may seem unfair for Townsend to suffer a penalty greater than Shufford, it is also within the power of a jury to find Townsend not credible or to exercise lenity tower a defendant.”

Joe Tamburino, a criminal defense attorney not involved in the case, said the ruling is no surprise, and illustrates two key points about the law.

Asked about the ruling in relation to aiding and abetting charges, Tamburino told Fox 9 he “wasn’t surprised by it at all because you have to understand that a lot of people think if I aid someone to commit a crime, or I aid them after the fact, after the crime, I can only be guilty if they’re guilty. That’s not true."

In fact, the appellate court decision mentions that the Minnesota Supreme Court has stated that “acquittal of a principal offender does not affect the conviction of a defendant charged with aiding and abetting the principal.”

Asked about the ruling in relation to plea deals, Tamburino told Fox 9 “to watch the deals you make. Once you make a deal, it’s going to be written in stone for the most part.” Minnesota law allows a person to withdraw a plea before sentencing “if it is fair and just to do so.” And the law allows a person to withdraw a plea after sentencing only if necessary “to correct a manifest injustice.”

As for Townsend, he was sentenced to 74 months in prison.