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Jury finds Duluth police officer not guilty

Tyler Leibfried will fight to keep his job after being acquitted of shooting a man through the door of a downtown apartment, while a civil lawsuit looms for the city.

Tyler Leibfried
Tyler Leibfried
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DULUTH — Walking out of a St. Louis County courtroom for the final time Friday afternoon, Tyler Leibfried was swarmed by family members and fellow law enforcement officers who had stood by his side throughout a weeklong trial.

The Duluth police officer exchanged hugs, smiles, sobs and well wishes with his supporters moments after a jury acquitted him of two felony charges stemming from the shooting of a man through the door of a downtown apartment in 2020.

"He's delighted with the verdict," said defense attorney Paul Engh, whose client declined to address reporters.

Leibfried, 30, of Hermantown, is believed to be the first area officer to stand trial for an on-duty shooting. He faced counts of second-degree assault and reckless discharge of a firearm that endangers the safety of others for shooting an unarmed man, Jared Fyle, during a domestic disturbance call at the Kingsley Heights Apartments, 105 W. First St., on Sept. 12, 2020.

The jury of seven men and five women heard closing arguments and final instructions earlier in the day, spending about three hours deliberating before reaching the unanimous verdict.

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St. Louis County Attorney Kim Maki said her office believed Leibfried's force was "not reasonable under the circumstances" and chose to charge and prosecute the case "as we would any other case."

"The jury took the case seriously, deliberated thoughtfully and rendered a verdict in accordance with the facts as they found them and the law as given to them by the court," Maki said in a statement. "The St. Louis County Attorney’s Office respects the jury’s decision and will continue to work diligently, alongside our partners in law enforcement, for the good of everyone in our community.”

Passionate closing arguments

Prosecutor Aaron Welch said in his closing argument that the officer “made a choice” to shoot at an unknown target — noting he did not act in a “split second,” but rather waited a full 10 seconds to respond to two banging noises caused by a hatchet used to close a stubborn door.

He argued Leibfried could have waited longer, attempted to communicate with his partner, gave a warning to the man inside or attempted to escape down the hallway.

"Mr. Leibfried relied on what we heard, but he didn't rely on what we could see,” the prosecutor said. “He didn't rely on communication. He made the decision to deploy deadly force through a closed door at what he knew not."

Welch noted that Leibfried fired an initial volley of four shots, paused approximately six seconds and then fired two more rounds as Fyle screamed out for him to stop. He told jurors that the officer ignored his duty to constantly reevaluate the threat level and determine if ongoing deadly force is still necessary.

"Even if you believe the first four shots were reasonable, the only reason to take the last two shots is to wound or kill Mr. Fyle,” Welch said. “He knows he's been hit. He's screaming for help."

Engh argued it was “unbelievable” that his client was ever charged with a crime. He said the risk of death or great bodily harm was “apparent to everyone.”

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"This case isn't about a banging sound,” Engh argued. “It's not about a deadbolt latching sound. It's about the sound of gunshots. Two of them, directed right at Officer (Cory) Lindsholm."

Engh asserted that his client showed restraint, shooting at the door only after he heard the deadbolt noise that he reasonably believed to be the racking of a semiautomatic firearm.

"He thinks his partner may be down,” the defense attorney said. “He knows cops get shot through doors. He knows he has a right to shoot. But he waits. He waits for the racking sound, just to be sure. And that's the key to this case."

Judge Sally Tarnowski instructed jurors that police officers are authorized to use deadly force "when necessary to protect from apparent death or great bodily harm. But the power is "limited by what a reasonable police officer in a similar situation would deem necessary."

The assessment must be made based on the judgment of the officer at the scene, and not 20/20 hindsight, Tarnowski instructed the panel.

Engh accused Fyle of precipitating the incident, saying he had to know police were coming and chose to slam the door with the hatchet, causing Leibfried’s response.

Kingsley Heights Apartments at 105 W. First St. in downtown Duluth.
Kingsley Heights Apartments in downtown Duluth is pictured Sept. 17, 2020.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune

He called the apartment building “a real dump,” with frequent crime, and said Leibfried’s previous experience being shot at by a domestic violence suspect in 2019 played into his mindset as he stood in the narrow hallway.

"One of his great motivations in this case is to protect his partner, Cory,” Engh said. “And now he's being charged for it."

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But Welch accused Engh of playing to emotions rather than the facts of the case and the law, saying the defense wanted a finding that "Mr. Fyle is a bad guy, so he had it coming."

He argued the defense “wants it both ways” — asking jurors to rely on Leibfried’s judgment in the heat of the moment but also fixating on the hatchet, which the officer had no knowledge of until well after the fact.

The prosecutor asked jurors to look at the second volley of shots.

"He has six seconds,” Welch said. “He's hearing a man scream and he just shoots again. What reevaluation takes place at that time? It doesn't sound like any."

But Engh called the situation "unbelievably terrifying" and said Leibfried wanted to go home alive that night.

"He saw mortal danger," the defense attorney argued. "He heard a guy loading up. Clearly this guy is dangerous. He's entitled to shoot."

Employment fight, civil lawsuit still to come

The Duluth Police Department placed Leibfried on leave after the shooting and later announced that he would remain "off duty indefinitely" due to a finding that he had violated the agency's use-of-force policy.

Payroll records previously obtained by the News Tribune show that the city stopped paying the officer in January 2021. Under state law, any decision to fire or otherwise discipline an employee is not public until "final disposition" of the action, which includes union arbitration rights.

Engh told the News Tribune that Leibfried is "fighting to keep his job." He said arbitration and unemployment claim hearings are both scheduled for the coming weeks.

Asked how the acquittal would impact those processes, Engh simply smiled.

Fyle, now 24, testified on Wednesday, but has not otherwise been present in the courtroom. He has retained a lawyer and acknowledged that he is planning to file a civil rights lawsuit against the city.

Phil Jents, a city spokesman, said the police department and administration would have no comment on the verdict "in light of pending civil legal actions."

This story was updated several times with the verdict and other information. The final version was published at 4:25 p.m. April 22. The initial version was posted at 2:42 p.m. April 22.

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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