Minnesota Supreme Court Tosses Conviction for Dead Defendant

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The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in a 4-1 decision to vacate all convictions and dismiss all original charges should a defendant die while appealing a case.

The ruling was made on Wednesday in the case of Mark Burrell, who was accused of switching identities with his brother for years and appealed a forgery conviction.

Burrell died last year, days after oral arguments at the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea, who ruled with the majority, said a person’s conviction isn’t final until appeals are exhausted. In Burrell’s case, the court had not yet decided the merits of his appeal, she said.

She also wrote it is impossible to punish a defendant who is deceased, according to the Associated Press.

Justice Christopher Dietzen disagreed, saying eliminating a conviction because the defendant has died ignores the interests of society and crime victims. He said that instead, the court should allow substitutes to stand in for the deceased while the merits of the appeal are considered.

Courts throughout out the nation have taken different approaches when a defendant dies while appealing a conviction.

In ten states, a defendant’s death lets the conviction stand. Fourteen states allow courts to consider the merits of an appeal after a defendant’s death. Those states are split on whether the court should order that a defendant be substituted.

For Minnesota, the ruling puts the state Supreme Court in line with federal courts, which also vacate defendants’ convictions if they die while appealing.  The ruling is an important one, says William Mitchell College of Law professor Bradford Colbert.

“It says quite clearly that if the case is on appeal, and the decision hasn’t been made, that they will reverse the conviction as though he were never convicted,” Colbert told Minnesota Public Radio. “And that’s new. At least its new in Minnesota.”

Sources: Associated Press, Minnesota Public Radio