Minnesota prosecutor was reluctant to drop murder charge against trooper, but ultimately did

Published 5:43 am Tuesday, June 4, 2024

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MINNEAPOLIS — A progressive Minnesota prosecutor who was elected on a platform of police accountability has reluctantly dropped charges against a state trooper who fatally shot a Black man after a traffic stop.

After months of heavy criticism, even from the state’s Democratic governor, Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty on Monday stood by her initial decision to charge Trooper Ryan Londregan in last summer’s killing of Ricky Cobb II. She says that new evidence makes the case would difficult to prove.

Moriarty, a former chief public defender for the county, was elected in 2022 with nearly 58% of the vote. Her announcement shows that charging officers with crimes is never simple, even in the same county where Derek Chauvin was convicted of George Floyd’s 2020 murder.

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Moriarty said she still believes she made the right decision to charge Londregan based on evidence available at the time. But she said a newly raised defense claim that Londregan believed Cobb was reaching for Londregan’s gun, along with new statements from State Patrol officials backing claims that he was following his training, made the case impossible to prove. So she filed papers Sunday to dismiss it.

“I was elected by the people in Hennepin County to make ethical, courageous decisions,” Moriarty said. “This is the kind of county attorney everybody wanted, not one that made decisions based on politics.”

The dismissal comes as progressive district attorneys and candidates in several liberal strongholds across the country have faced setbacks as frustrations have risen over public safety.

In Oregon last month, centrist DA candidate Nathan Vasquez ousted incumbent progressive prosecutor Mike Schmidt in Multnomah County, after vowing to be tough on crime. Last month in San Francisco, Alameda County supervisors set a recall election for District Attorney Pamela Price, who, like Moriarty, ran on a platform of offender rehabilitation and police accountability. Price had replaced Chesa Boudin, another progressive prosecutor who voters recalled earlier in 2022.

Gov. Tim Walz said Moriarty eventually “got to the right decision,” and that it became apparent that “there were problems in this prosecution from the beginning.”

Walz denied Moriarty’s allegations that he interfered in the case, but also told reporters he would have used his power to take the case from her and hand it to the attorney general’s office if she had not dropped the charges. He said those powers provide a “safety net” to “allow an egregious situation like this to be corrected.”

Leaders with the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, which waged a high-profile campaign urging Walz to take the case from Moriarty, said her statements about her decision were “unhinged” and “riddled with vengeance.” Republican politicians were quick to repeat their claims that Londregan should never have been charged.

“Former Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner. a Democrat, said this case is an example of how the criminal justice system has become increasingly politicized.

“You have a prosecutor who was very transparent on the campaign trail about what her priorities were and what she intended to do in office. Police accountability was one of those priorities,” Gaertner said in an interview. “In this case, it seems to me like she made a good faith decision to charge this case, but then when other information came to her attention, she dismissed it. That was the ethical thing to do. And I’m sure it wasn’t easy.”

On July 31, troopers pulled the 33-year-old Cobb over on Interstate 94 because the lights were out on his car. They found that the Spring Lake Park man was wanted for a violating a domestic no-contact order in neighboring Ramsey County. Londregan arrived to assist. While the troopers were telling Cobb to get out of the car, he shifted into drive and took his foot off the brake. When Cobb’s car began to slowly move forward, Londregan reached for his gun. Cobb stopped. Londregan pointed his gun at Cobb and yelled at him to get out. Cobb took his foot off the brake again while another trooper’s torso was at least partially in the car. Londregan then fired twice at Cobb, striking him both times in the chest.

Body camera video shows Cobb raising his hand just before Londregan shot him. Moriarty said the video doesn’t prove a claim, raised by the defense in April, that Cobb was attempting to reach for his service weapon — but she conceded it doesn’t disprove it either. She said prosecutors didn’t know previously that this assertion would be key to Londregan’s defense.

Moriarty also pointed to fresh statements by State Patrol training officials, submitted as part of the defense case, that the trooper acted in accordance with his training. She said it made the case harder to prove.

Prosecutors took all of that to a use-of-force expert whose analysis lead them to conclude that they’d lose at trial, Moriarty said. The judge might have dismissed the case without even sending it to the jury, she added.

In a fiery news conference of his own, Londregan’s attorney, Chris Madel, said Moriarty knew from the start that Londregan would argue he used deadly force to protect himself, and knew since April that the defense would claim Cobb reached for Londregan’s firearm.

“This county attorney was hell-bent on prosecuting a cop,” Madel said. “She could not wait for a case like this to come up.” He added: “For her to come out now and say, ‘Oh my gosh, we had no idea the defense was hiding this great evidence,’ it’s just plain absurd.”

Londregan, who was free on his own recognizance, remains on paid leave while the State Patrol reviews the shooting. Madel said Londregan plans to return to law enforcement over the objections of some family members.

Moriarty called on the State Patrol to implement several changes to reduce the use of deadly force. The troopers at the scene had better options than leaning into his car to try to extricate Cobb but “bungled” their opportunities, she said. They could have told Cobb that they intended to arrest him, instead of just ordering him out of the car. They could have just let him drive off, she said, because they knew where to find him. Or they could have placed stop sticks under his car.

The State Patrol declined to respond to her recommendations. The Patrol said in a statement Sunday night that its ability to comment was limited because of the ongoing lawsuit filed by Cobb’s family in April.

Attorneys for Cobb’s family said they were disappointed but not surprised by this outcome.

“The simple fact is that, regardless of how many absurd excuses Trooper Londregan gives to try and absolve himself, he shot and killed Ricky Cobb II at point blank range without any justification and, instead of prosecuting him for murder, the County Attorney’s Office has bowed to political pressure to drop the charges,” the family’s attorneys said in a statement.

“Apparently, all you have to do to get away with murder is to bully the prosecutors enough and the charges will just go away,” the attorneys continued. “The people don’t believe the excuses and neither do we.”