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Judge reinstates charges in Hibbing shooting case

A judge has reinstated most of the charges he earlier dismissed against a defendant who was shot by Hibbing police last year after allegedly assaulting another man and pointing a firearm at officers.

Che Nathaniel JonesIn a rare reversal of his own ruling, 6th Judicial District Judge Mark Starr said three counts of first-degree assault should be restored in the case of 24-year-old Che Nathaniel Jones.

Jones, of Rochester, Minn., is accused of striking a random victim over the head with a firearm before leading officers on a brief foot pursuit in January 2017. He was shot by Capt. Kurt Metzig and Officer Cody Loewen after authorities said he pointed the weapon in their direction and apparently fired a round into the ground.

Starr in October dismissed the counts after finding that the prosecution failed to produce evidence that would allow a jury to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Jones attempted to use deadly force against any of the officers.

The judge said at the time that there were no eyewitnesses to the incident and that nothing in the record pointed to Jones firing the gun in the direction of the officers, or anyone else, with an attempt to cause injury.

The prosecution even lost a Court of Appeals review of the decision on procedural grounds in December, seemingly putting the issue to rest, before bringing the successful motion for Starr to reconsider his original order.

The judge said a 2016 Minnesota Supreme Court decision not previously cited by the parties makes it clear that the act of pointing a firearm in the direction of an officer is sufficient basis for an assault charge to be brought to a jury.

"In his original brief, the defendant argued that it would have been legally and factually impossible for the defendant to have attempted to use deadly force on all three officers," Starr wrote. "That is, there was only evidence of one bullet being fired, and only one bullet could not harm all three officers.

"However, it is clear from the (case law) that it is not necessary to actually fire a bullet in the direction of an officer in order to be found guilty of assault in the first degree."

Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Jeff Vlatkovich wrote in a January brief that the Supreme Court decision does not require proof that the defendant fired the weapon at the officers. He said the "totality of circumstances from the incident" can be taken into consideration.

"The state would present the testimony of the officers to support the allegations that the defendant did brandish the firearm at them, that they were fearful he would shoot them, and that the firearm was in fact loaded when recovered," Vlatkovich wrote. "Those facts are sufficient to present the charges to a jury to weigh issues of credibility and intent."

Defense attorney Marcus Almon opposed the motion. He argued that the Court of Appeals rejection should have barred the prosecution from further contesting the order in district court, but did not challenge the interpretation of the case law.

The first-degree assault charges each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. An equally serious charge of attempted second-degree murder was the only count not reinstated.

Jones also faces seven additional felony charges: four counts of second-degree assault and one count each of felon in possession of a firearm, receiving stolen property and fifth-degree possession of a controlled substance.

A trial date is expected to be scheduled in near future.