New felony murder law in MN reopening old wounds for loved ones

It was another agonizing birthday celebration on Feb. 16 for the family of murder victim Corey Elder, which was even more painful for his loved ones this year. Elder was killed nearly seven years ago. Earlier this month, right before what would have been his 26th birthday, two women involved in his killing were let out of prison early.

As FOX 9 was first to report, a new Minnesota law has redefined aiding-and-abetting felony murder. Now, as outrage over the law change is growing, supporters continue to insist, it is the right thing to do in the name of justice.

"We all just believe in celebrating Corey's life, keeping his memory alive," said Bobbie Elder, Corey’s mom, as the family had cake and sang Happy Birthday.

Twice a year, Elder and her large family gather to remember her oldest son -- on his birthday, and then to hold each other up on the anniversary of the day he was murdered in his Bloomington apartment, April 27. And this year, it hurts even more.

"It has been triggering to deal with, you know, old wounds were never closed, so they are all the way back open," Elder said.

Earlier this month, two women who pleaded guilty and were ultimately convicted for aiding and abetting in Elder’s slaying walked out of prison. Megan Cater and Briana Martinson were released more than two-and-a-half years early. It is believed they were the first two felons in the state to be resentenced to lesser crimes under new laws defining the felony murder statutes in Minnesota.

"We are frustrated. Our detectives put in a lot of work in this case in 2017," Bloomington Police Chief Booker Hodges said in a videotaped message his department circulated soon after the women were released. "Convicts. You are still convicts."

While Hodges was not police chief at the time of Elder’s murder, he shared his frustrations, explaining that there are still those in authority who still focus on the victims of crime. "I will always focus on the victim," he said. 

Meanwhile, Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty welcomed the law change, and the pair’s release as a step in the right direction for equal justice.

"We are not talking about people who are innocent of everything. We are just recognizing exactly the role that they played," Moriarty told FOX 9’s Paul Blume during an interview earlier this month.

Over the last few years, the Minnesota legislature has studied and ultimately redefined the law to strengthen language around felony murder so that only those major participants in the actual killing face the harshest consequences. Under the old statute, a person could be charged, convicted, and sent to prison for murder, even if they never intended to harm anyone during the commission of another felony crime, like a bank robbery.

"It is a very controversial doctrine, the whole felony murder rule. And about nine states have abolished it completely," said University of Minnesota emeritus law professor Richard Frase, who is a current member of the legislative task force, studying this issue. "There has to be proof of culpability on a secondary party. You cannot just say, well, you did the burglary and somebody died, so you are a murderer."

Among the early findings from the group, the old law was too often, adversely impacting Black and young offenders, primarily in Hennepin County, often women.

In fact, Cater’s mom testified before the legislature in 2022, arguing the two women only participated in a scheme to retrieve some of their own pills and steal drugs from Elder. And that they never intended for Elder to be harmed.

"The girls could never have imagined what was going to happen," said Toni Cater during her 2022 testimony. "Megan and Brianna, the two young men who never left the car, and the two men who beat and then murdered this young man, all received the exact same charges of first-degree murder. What we now know is this is not uncommon."

When lawmakers changed the law last year and applied it retroactively, Cater and Martinson appealed their matching 13,5-year prison sentences. Their convictions for aiding and abetting the killing were vacated. They were resentenced on an aiding and abetting burglary charge. And with time already served, the two were immediately released from the women’s prison in Shakopee.

"Infuriating doesn't even begin to describe it. They are the masterminds behind the entire crime. They set it up. They arranged for there to be a gun," responded Bobbie Elder to the court’s decision to resentence the women. "They were 100% major participants.

During his interview with Moriarty, Blume asked the County Attorney what she would tell the Elders or other families who believe their loved one would still be here if not for the actions of all of the actors connected to a deadly act of violence.

Moriarty responded: "We cannot expect people who are grieving, who have lost a loved one to kind of differentiate between who did what. What I would say now is that conversation would be very different with a family or loved ones. We would be saying, and the law allows us to say this, we can charge this person who took your loved one's life with murder. This other person who may have driven there, did play a role, but we are going to charge them with something different. And I think if you start out that conversation early in the process, people can understand that. I think the difficulty is you think, you have closure, you think it is done, and then we are reaching out to you. And from your perspective, you probably have been told way back when it was prosecuted, it does not matter what role you play, you are still guilty. And so, you are really asking grieving people to try to differentiate legal principles, which I think makes sense in a vacuum. And obviously, it is very difficult for grieving loved ones to understand." 

Two other men connected to Elder’s murder – Noah Peterson and Alec Streit – stayed out in the car. They are also appealing their convictions right now.

Across the state, there have been at least 105 people convicted under the old aiding and abetting felony murder statute attempting to have their crimes reduced. Court administration records indicate at least 38 preliminary applications have been rejected. But that process continues for another year and a half. So, there are likely to be more families like the Elders impacted by this effort which supporters say is all about holding people accountable for the crimes they commit, not the murders someone else is responsible for.