The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the first-degree murder conviction and life sentence for Deandre Demetrius Davenport, the man convicted of fatally shooting University of Minnesota Duluth student William Grahek in 2017.
Davenport, now 24, was one of five people charged and convicted in relation to Grahek's shooting death, which occurred during a botched robbery attempt at the victim's East Hillside residence. Authorities said Davenport shot Grahek twice when he refused to turn over a safe containing drugs and cash.
Davenport was convicted by a Brainerd jury in December 2018 and subsequently received a mandatory life term with the possibility of parole after 30 years. He appealed on the basis that the court should have received a special instruction regarding the testimony of co-defendant Noah Duane Baker, who originally implicated Davenport in the crime before changing his story to claim he acted alone.
The court did, in fact, err by failing to inform jurors that Baker was considered an accomplice whose testimony needed to be corroborated by other evidence, the Supreme Court said. But the justices concluded that the oversight had no impact on the verdict.
"The circumstances proved, when viewed as a whole, (they) are not consistent with any rational hypothesis other than that of guilt," Associate Justice Paul Thissen wrote in the unanimous 25-page opinion.
Baker pleaded guilty to intentional second-degree murder in April 2018, receiving a 30-year prison term in exchange for his cooperation in the investigation. He testified at his plea hearing that he accompanied Davenport and Noah Anthony Charles King to Grahek's residence on Feb. 14, 2017, with the intent of stealing drugs and cash.
Baker and Davenport were both armed with handguns, while King carried a wrench, according to the testimony. Confronted by Grahek, who they didn't believe would be home, Baker said Davenport fired when the victim refused instructions to get on the ground.
King returned home, across the alley from Grahek's home, while the others retreated to a Superior hotel with Tara Rai Baker, the sister of Noah Baker and girlfriend of Davenport. Baker further testified that he subsequently destroyed evidence with the assistance of Xavier Alfred Haywood, the man who had informed them of Grahek's drug sales.
But Noah Baker drastically changed his story in subsequent testimony at the trials of both King and Davenport, claiming he acted alone in shooting Grahek during the attempted burglary.
In both cases, the prosecution introduced a transcript of his earlier testimony. King was convicted by Judge Mark Munger at a bench trial, while a Crow Wing County jury found Davenport guilty at a trial moved out of Duluth due to extensive publicity.
On appeal, Davenport asserted that he was entitled to a new trial because Munger failed to read a standard instruction regarding the testimony of accomplices. Appellate public defender Melissa Sheridan said at an oral argument in June that "everyone dropped the ball" on the issue, potentially tainting the jury's decision.
But the Supreme Court sided with Assistant Minnesota Attorney General Ed Stockmeyer, who argued that the oversight amounted to a moot point because of the "overwhelming evidence" of Davenport's guilt.
"Considerable evidence corroborates Baker's plea hearing testimony," Thissen wrote. "For instance, Baker, Davenport and King were close friends who had committed burglaries together before. And King's girlfriend testified that, immediately before the break-in and murder, the three men gathered at King's house and left the house together dressed in all black, heading in the direction of Grahek's house."
Pointing to various corroborating evidence, the high court concluded there was "no reasonable likelihood that the jury relied solely on Baker's plea hearing testimony to find him guilty."
"The unique circumstances of a single witness offering contradictory testimony is persuasive proof that the jury must have looked to something beyond Baker's plea hearing testimony — namely, corroborating evidence — to decide which version of Baker's testimony to believe," Thissen said.
The justices also rejected a claim that Davenport's indictment should have been dismissed due to procedural errors.
Under Minnesota law, first-degree murder convictions are appealed directly to the Supreme Court.
It's the first appellate decision stemming from Grahek's murder, though others remain under review.
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 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Haywood, who is serving nearly 16 years in prison for a charge of aiding an offender, had his case heard by a three-judge panel of the Minnesota Court of Appeals in June. A decision is expected by mid-September.
This story was updated at 12:50 p.m. Aug. 5 with additional information. It was originally posted at 10:53 a.m. Aug. 5.