Noah Duane Baker provided two very different accounts of the February 2017 death of University of Minnesota Duluth student William Grahek.
When he testified at the trial of co-defendant Deandre Demetrius Davenport in December 2018, Baker told a jury that he alone went to Grahek's East Hillside residence and shot the 22-year-old twice during an attempted robbery.
But just months earlier, Baker testified at his own plea hearing that he was accompanied to the scene by Davenport and a third man, Noah Anthony Charles King. It was Davenport who pulled the trigger, he said under oath.
An alleged procedural error stemming from the unusual situation was the basis of discussion at the Minnesota Supreme Court on Monday, as justices heard oral arguments in an appeal filed by Davenport.
Davenport, now 24, is serving a mandatory life term with the possibility of parole only after 30 years in prison for his conviction on a charge of first-degree murder.
But the district court failed to provide proper instructions to the Brainerd jury that heard the case due to extensive pretrial publicity in Duluth, appellate public defender Melissa Sheridan argued.
Sheridan said 6th Judicial District Judge Mark Munger should have instructed the panel that Baker was legally considered an accomplice to the crime and that his testimony — the earlier version, in which he implicated Davenport — needed to be corroborated by other evidence in order to support a finding of Davenport's guilt.
Sheridan suggested it was an oversight and that "everyone dropped the ball," arguing Davenport is entitled to a new trial as a result.
"The unusual thing here in this situation is that nobody — the judge, two prosecutors, two defense attorneys — nobody said, 'Hey, wait a minute, we've got an accomplice here and his testimony needs to be corroborated," Sheridan told the high court.
Assistant Minnesota Attorney General Ed Stockmeyer disagreed, saying the omission of the instruction was not a "plain error." While Baker's earlier testimony was incriminating for Davenport, Stockmeyer said the Supreme Court has never required that a cautionary instruction be given for previous statements that are introduced at trial.
Stockmeyer said there was "overwhelming evidence" of Davenport's guilt and suggested it was a strategic decision on the part of his defense team not to request the guidance to jurors. Defense attorneys argued at trial that Baker alone carried out the killing — aligning with the testimony he gave at Davenport's trial.
"Mr. Davenport's guilt was not based on Noah Baker's trial testimony," Stockmeyer told the justices. Had Noah Baker's trial testimony been believed, the result would have been an acquittal on all charges."
Some justices did seem to suggest that the law required the instruction, regardless of why it was omitted.
"(Jurors) had to rely on and believe the guilty plea hearing testimony," Justice Natalie Hudson noted. "What defense attorney wouldn't want an instruction telling them how to go about looking at that?"
But other members of the court appeared skeptical that the alleged error changed the ultimate verdict.
"The fact that they had two competing versions of the testimony in front of them — the only way they could resolve that was by looking to outside independent or corroborating testimony," Justice Paul Thissen said.
The court heard the arguments via videoconferencing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Under Minnesota law, first-degree murder appeals are heard directly by the state Supreme Court. It likely will be several months before the court issues its decision in a written opinion.
King also is challenging his first-degree murder conviction and life sentence, claiming in a memorandum that his conviction was based on false testimony and that he was provided with ineffective counsel. His appeal has been stayed to allow for an evidentiary hearing in district court; originally scheduled for April, that has been indefinitely postponed.
Baker is serving a 30-year prison term, having pleaded guilty to intentional second-degree murder in exchange for his testimony and cooperation with law enforcement. He received immunity from perjury charges before changing his story on the stand at the trials of King and Davenport.
Tara Baker, the sister of Noah Baker and girlfriend of Davenport, remains on probation until 2024 for her role in lying to Duluth police about the circumstances of their involvement in Grahek's death.
Xavier Alfred Haywood, who helped organize the planned theft of drugs and cash from Grahek's residence before taking steps to hinder the police investigation, is serving nearly 16 years in prison. His case will be reviewed by the Minnesota Court of Appeals on June 25.