Minnesota man’s 2001 murder conviction should be overturned, officials say

Published 4:53 pm Thursday, June 6, 2024

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MINNEAPOLIS — A man who was convicted of murder in 2001 should be exonerated, a special unit of the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office said Thursday, saying prosecutors used shoddy legal tactics and unreliable evidence to secure a conviction in the 1998 killing of an 84-year-old storekeeper.

Brian Pippitt, 62, has been serving a life sentence for the murder of Evelyn Malin in east Minnesota’s Aitkin County. In a lengthy report and announcement, the Conviction Review Unit of the state Attorney General’s Office said Pippitt’s conviction was built on flawed legal work.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said his office’s team “conducted a careful, lengthy, objective review of the case,” and that he supported the findings.

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“No person or community is safer, and justice is not served, when an innocent person is convicted and imprisoned,” he said.

The Attorney General’s Office said Pippitt’s case marks the first time the special unit has recommended the full exoneration of an incarcerated person.

Pippitt’s attorneys filed a petition Wednesday for post-conviction release in Aitkin County District Court. The filing requests that Pippitt’s conviction be vacated and the charges against him dismissed.

James Cousins, an attorney with Centurion, a nonprofit that works to free innocent people from prison, started working on Pippitt’s case in 2015. He submitted an application on behalf of Pippitt to the Conviction Review Unit, which was created in 2021 to remedy potentially wrongful convictions.

“Brian Pippitt had nothing to do with this murder, he wasn’t involved at all. And he’s been wrongly incarcerated for 25 years,” Cousins said. “This is just a gross injustice that continues every day.”

Aitkin County Attorney James Ratz, who did not handle Pippitt’s prosecution, could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday. A staff member who answered the phone at the Aitkin County Attorney’s Office said Ratz would be out of the office until next week. The county attorney who prosecuted Pippitt was disbarred in 2007, Ellison’s office said.

Malin was found dead in the living quarters connected to her store on the morning of Feb. 24, 1998. She had been beaten and strangled. Prosecutors would later contend that Pippitt and four other men burglarized Malin’s store for beer and cigarettes and killed her in the process.

The case relied on testimony from co-defendants who were given favorable plea deals and sentencing recommendations in exchange for their cooperation, investigators with the Conviction Review Unit found. Both witnesses have since recanted their testimony.

The prosecution also relied on testimony from a jailhouse informant who said Pippitt confessed to him that he killed Malin. But the informant’s testimony conflicted with other evidence investigators had developed, the report said. No fingerprints, hair, or DNA were collected from the scene that matched Pippitt.

Pippitt’s trial attorney failed to address these shortcomings, and didn’t provide an adequate defense, the special unit said. They also found that two alternative suspects were never fully investigated and fully cleared of wrongdoing

The Aitkin County Attorney has 20 days to respond to Pippitt’s petition for release, Cousins said. A hearing could be scheduled to review evidence in the case, or the county attorney could request that a judge fast-track Pippitt for release.

“He’s a very stoic, even-tempered man,” Cousins said of Pippitt. “He was, of course, ecstatic when the AG’s report came out. But he’s under a lot of stress, because every day that goes by, he’s hoping that report will result in his release.”