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Defense: Hibbing murder indictment should be tossed

Nearly two years after the Christmas Day killing of Jeryel McBeth, defendant Jerome Spann remains in the St. Louis County Jail as he faces a potential life sentence.

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Jerome Dionte Spann

A Hibbing murder indictment should be dismissed because grand jurors were improperly presented with inadmissible testimony, a defense attorney argued.

Panelists also were not adequately screened for potential bias or given proper instructions while considering the case of Jerome Dionte Spann, according to public defender Elizabeth Polling.

Spann, 31, was indicted by a grand jury last August on a charge of premeditated first-degree murder in the Dec. 25, 2018, shooting death of 34-year-old Jeryel McBeth. If convicted, he faces a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Authorities said McBeth was standing outside a residence at 2408 Third Ave. E. in Hibbing with several others when Spann and another man exited a nearby SUV shortly after 7:30 p.m.

According to a criminal complaint , Spann carried a handgun as he approached the group and allegedly shot McBeth three times in the chest, shoulder and forearm. Spann continued shooting four or five rounds, striking 25-year-old Jamien Stuckey and nearly hitting another man before fleeing the scene, the complaint alleges.

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A caller told a 911 dispatcher that McBeth had been hit in the chest and was lying on the ground, the complaint states. He was taken by ambulance to Fairview Range Medical Center in Hibbing, where he was pronounced dead. Stuckey's injuries were not life-threatening, and he was treated at a local hospital.

Spann was arrested Dec. 28 at a residence in St. Paul, where he has relatives. He has two prior convictions in the Twin Cities for carrying or possessing a pistol without a permit: one in 2013 and another in 2017.

Prosecutors initially charged Spann with intentional second-degree murder and second-degree assault, before convening the grand jury. Under Minnesota law, a first-degree murder charge can only be levied by the panel, consisting of 16-23 people, which meets in secret.

But Polling contended the indictment should be dismissed because of eight alleged flaws in the proceedings, mostly related to the presentation of testimony.

In a 16-page memorandum filed last week, the defense attorney said witnesses were repeatedly permitted to offer evidence that they allegedly learned from other sources — testimony that she said amounts to inadmissible hearsay.

She said an officer told grand jurors that he had been dispatched to Spann's residence a day before the killing after Spann called 911 to report McBeth "banging on his door and threatening to assault him." The officer testified that he spoke with McBeth, who told him he was there to "beat him up" because Spann had "pulled a handgun on him a while ago."

"The circumstances are such that it is highly probable that the accusation levied by Mr. McBeth was not the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth," Polling wrote, noting McBeth was being questioned in regard to his participation in a crime.

The defense attorney added that a woman was allowed to testify that she learned Spann "was telling people he was going to do something" to McBeth and that they had "beef or issues." An investigator also stated that the woman had told him that Spann "has a gun and always carries a gun" and had been threatening McBeth's life, pulling a gun on him at a gas station earlier in December 2018.

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"Neither (the woman's) testimony, nor the testimony of the investigating officer establish she had personal knowledge of such an incident occurring," Polling wrote.

The defense attorney further scrutinized the testimony of two charged accomplices in the case.

According to the defense motion, Kyshaun Klasko and Jenna Wersal both told the grand jury that they picked up Spann, followed his directions, waited while he committed the shooting and then drove him away from the scene.

Klasko, 20, and Wersal, 19, each received a stay of imposition and a probationary sentence after pleading guilty to charges of aiding an offender as an accomplice after the fact. In exchange, both agreed to cooperate in Spann's prosecution.

Because of that, Polling argued, jurors should have been provided with a special instruction on how to assess the credibility of their testimony. She further criticized the fact that a testifying officer implied Klasko "started telling the truth" after initially denying any knowledge or involvement in the shooting.

"Other than Klasko and Wersal's statements to the contrary, no evidence was presented that absolves either witness of the objective facts they both testified to," Polling wrote, noting jurors also were not aware of the potential sentences the two would have faced without the benefit of a plea agreement.

Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Stacey Sundquist, who is leading the prosecution, has until Sept. 20 to file a formal response to the defense challenge. Judge Rachel Sullivan will then take the issue under advisement and issue a written ruling.

Spann remains in the St. Louis County Jail on $500,000 bail.

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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