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Brevator Township man to contest murder charge in Fond du Lac shooting

A ruling this week from the Minnesota Supreme Court has added a new wrinkle in the prosecution's effort to achieve a more substantial conviction in a teen's December death.

Joseph James Fohrenkam.jpg
Joseph James Fohrenkam

A new defense attorney for the Brevator Township man accused of fatally shooting his friend while showing off a gun late last year said he will contest a recently added murder charge.

Joseph James Fohrenkam, 18, is accused of unintentionally killing Joseph James Peterson, 16, while drinking inside a car on the Fond du Lac Reservation on Dec. 28.

Fohrenkam, who appeared in State District Court in Duluth on Friday, had already pleaded not guilty to a count of second-degree manslaughter before prosecutors added a more serious charge of third-degree murder in late February.

The Minnesota Supreme Court, coincidentally, issued a ruling in another case Wednesday seeking to draw a clearer distinction between those two charges.

Second-degree manslaughter requires that a death occurred through "culpable negligence whereby the defendant created an unreasonable risk and consciously took a chance of causing death or great bodily harm to another."


Third-degree murder was a seldom-invoked charge in Minnesota prior to the past decade, when its drug-overdose provision started to gain frequent use as a tactic to prosecute suppliers of deadly controlled substances such as heroin and fentanyl.

But it's a second provision under the law that is relevant to Fohrenkam's case. He is accused of "perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life" — the same language currently being used to prosecute former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for third-degree murder in the death of George Floyd.

PREVIOUSLY: Murder charge added in teen's shooting death on Fond du Lac Reservation The additional charge significantly increases the potential sentence Joseph Fohrenkam could face if convicted of killing 16-year-old Joseph Peterson.
The Supreme Court's review came in the case of a drunken snowmobiler who was convicted of third-degree murder after striking and killing an 8-year-old boy while speeding on a frozen Chisago County lake in 2018.

While affirming Eric Joseph Coleman's conviction, the high court wrote that jury instruction used at trial was wrong because it allowed for a conviction based on mere recklessness — "an impermissibly low risk of death."

The court offered a clearer standard of proof for third-degree murder.

"When such circumstances show that the defendant committed an eminently dangerous act with an indifference to the loss of life that the eminently dangerous act could cause, the defendant has the requisite mental state for third-degree murder," Associate Justice Margaret Chutich wrote for the court.

"This state of mind demands a greater showing than the 'unreasonable risk' and 'consciously takes a chance' requirements of the second-degree manslaughter statute."

The two charges carry a significant difference in consequences. Under state sentencing guidelines, a first-time offender would be expected to receive approximately 12 1/2 in prison on the murder charge, compared to just four years for manslaughter.


Fond du Lac homicide locator Fohrenkam/Peterson December 2020
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Fohrenkam and Peterson were among a group of five young people drinking alcohol in a vehicle outside the defendant's house, 3609 Giiniw Road, when the shooting occurred. The other occupants later told police that Fohrenkam was waving a firearm around, "pointing the gun at everyone in the truck (and) messing around" when he suddenly shot Peterson.

A criminal complaint indicates that the witnesses were intoxicated and did not all clearly observe what led up to the gunshot, but one said Fohrenkam may have accidentally bumped the center console while putting the gun away, causing it to fire.

PREVIOUSLY: Witnesses recount shooting that killed 16-year-old on Fond du Lac Reservation One witness told police Joseph Fohrenkam was "showing off" his pistol while a group of five were sitting in a truck drinking alcohol.
A 911 call was placed, but no one else was present when authorities found Peterson in the back seat of the truck. Fohrenkam and his mother, Little Fawn Fohrenkam, allegedly drove to northwestern Minnesota, shaved their heads and hid inside an apartment for more than a week before they were arrested.

William Gatton, a Minneapolis attorney recently retained by Joseph Fohrenkam, told Judge Eric Hylden on Friday that he intends to file a motion to dismiss the murder charge. He did not further elaborate on the issue, but Hylden indicated he "was going to be interested in everyone's opinions on whether (the Supreme Court ruling) had any effect on our case."

Joseph Fohrenkam remains in the St. Louis County Jail on $400,000 bail.

Little Fawn Fohrenkam, 38, who is out of custody, also appeared before Hylden on her charge of aiding an offender. Defense attorney J.D. Schmid said he anticipates settling the case, but indicated meaningful plea negotiations likely could not occur until there is further clarity on the son's charges.


Hylden scheduled June 14 hearing dates for both.

Little Fawn Fohrenkam.jpg
Little Fawn Fohrenkam

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