Leibfried testifies in Duluth shooting trial; defense expert backs response
After two full days of testimony with competing accounts and opinions, a jury will begin deliberating Friday in the police officer's case.
DULUTH — Tyler Leibfried told a jury he's been shot at before and he was "100%" sure he was getting shot at again on the night of Sept. 12, 2020.
"This is Jan. 13, 2019, all over again," Leibfried recalled thinking as he testified in a Duluth courtroom Thursday. "That's the night Officer (Aaron) Haller got shot. ... It's the exact same feeling I had that night in 2019. If you took that incident and this incident and put them together, I could not tell you the difference."
Leibfried, on trial for felony assault and firearm charges, took the witness stand in his own defense, explaining publicly for the first time his perspective on how and why he shot Jared Fyle through the closed door of a downtown apartment 19 months ago.
The Duluth police officer said there was no doubt in his mind that he heard two gunshots coming from the third-floor unit at the Kingsley Heights Apartments, where he had responded to address multiple complaints about a domestic disturbance.
Leibfried, ducking into a small alcove near Fyle's apartment, said he was similarly convinced that he heard the man on the other side of the door racking a firearm with the intent to send additional rounds at him and his partner.
"Officers get killed through doorways," the defendant testified. "The only cop killed in Duluth in the last 40 years was shot through a closed door."
No other option, officer says
Leibfried paused 10 seconds, fired four shots through the door, waited another six seconds and then fired two more rounds into the apartment as Fyle screamed for him to stop.
He told the jury he was in fear for his own life and that of his partner, officer Cory Lindsholm, who was standing further down the hallway without cover. He testified that he believed shooting Fyle was the only way he could end the threat and check on the safety of his fellow officer.
"If I stayed there while Officer Lindsholm is bleeding out, I don't think it's something I could've lived with for the next 40 years," said Leibfried, comparing it to the 2019 incident in which he dragged a wounded Haller from the scene where his K-9, Haas, was killed by a domestic violence suspect.
St. Louis County prosecutor Aaron Welch attempted to pick apart portions of Leibfried's account, suggesting he could have taken other measures short of firing at an unknown target that he could not see.
But Leibfried claimed he had no other option. He said he'd give up his exact location if he tried to call out to Fyle. Running back down the hallway would leave him particularly vulnerable to gunfire. Forcing his way into an adjacent apartment could put other civilians in danger.
Welch tried to focus on the pause between Leibfried's volleys and Fyle's audible response, questioning whether a "reasonable officer" would choose to shoot again while a man on the other side of the door called out for him to stop.
Leibfried, citing the stressful nature of the incident, said he didn't even recall pausing until he watched his body camera footage. He said he didn't stop firing and retreat down the hallway until he heard a change of tone in Fyle's voice that made him sincerely believe he was incapacitated.
Authorities have said the banging noises were a result of Fyle using a hatchet to close a stubborn door as officers approached. But Leibfried had a different view of it. "In hindsight, I believe he was in some form or fashion trying to attack us or scare us," he testified.
Experts disagree on response
Before Leibfried took the stand, jurors heard from two veteran police officers with competing opinions on the incident.
Retired Duluth Police Lt. Bob Shene criticized Leibfried for making a "rush" decision to shoot, noting he was in a relatively safe position in the alcove.
"I don't believe Officer Leibfried could've known what he was shooting at," said Shene, who reviewed the incident at the request of his former department.
Dan Montgomery disagreed. The defense expert spent 45 years as a police officer and, after retiring in 2007, started a consulting firm in Colorado.
"Tyler was trapped just to the right of the door," Montgomery testified. "He was concealed but not covered. All he's got are drywall and wood. Bullets start flying and they will penetrate drywall and wood very easily. They were in an extremely dangerous situation at that moment."
Montgomery, who has testified both for and against police officers in criminal and civil trials around the country, said Leibfried legitimately believed himself to be in an active shooter situation and "the target is the door."
"It is not unreasonable to defend your life," he said. "If you wait to react, you might be dead. You can't wait for the truth to come out because it may be too late."
Fellow Duluth officers Nick Hudson, Brandon Tehari and Ryan Puhle provided character testimony in support of Leibfried, as did Rosemount, Minnesota, Police Chief Mike Dahlstrom. Leibfried worked as a community service officer in his hometown before joining the Duluth force in 2016.
"I wouldn't be sitting here if I didn't think he was a man of honesty and integrity," Dahlstrom said.
The jury of eight men and six women, including two alternates, will hear closing arguments and final instructions Friday morning before beginning deliberations. Judge Sally Tarnowski told them to prepare to stay into the evening, if necessary.