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

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – A progressive Minnesota prosecutor who was elected on a platform of police accountability has abruptly 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 District Attorney Mary Moriarty on Monday stood by her initial decision to charge Trooper Ryan Londregan in the killing of Ricky Cobb II last summer. She says new evidence makes the case difficult to prove.

Moriarty, a former county chief public defender, was elected in 2022 with nearly 58 percent 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 killing George Floyd in 2020.

Moriarty said he still believes he made the right decision to charge Londregan based on the 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 supporting claims he was watching his training, made the case impossible to demonstrated. So she filed papers Sunday to dismiss it.

“I was elected by the people of Hennepin County to make ethical and courageous decisions,” Moriarty said. “This is the kind of district attorney everyone wanted, not one who made decisions based on politics.”

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

In Oregon last month, centrist candidate for district attorney Nathan Vasquez unseated incumbent progressive Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt after he promised 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 criminal rehabilitation and police accountability. Price had replaced Chesa Boudin, another progressive prosecutor whom voters recalled in early 2022.

Gov. Tim Walz said Moriarty “ultimately came to the right decision” and that it had become apparent that “there were problems with this prosecution from the beginning.”

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

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

“Former Ramsey County Prosecutor Susan Gaertner. a Democrat, said the 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 her priorities and what she intended to do in office. Police accountability was one of those priorities,” Gaertner said in an interview. “In this case, it appears to me that she made a good faith decision to prosecute this case, but then when other information came to her attention, she dismissed it. It was the ethical thing to do. And I’m sure it wasn’t easy.”

On July 31, troopers pulled Cobb, 33, over on Interstate 94 because his car’s lights were off. They discovered the Spring Lake Park man was wanted for violating a domestic no-contact order in neighboring Ramsey County. Londregan arrived to assist. As the officers told Cobb to get out of the car, he got behind the wheel and took his foot off the brake. As 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 soldier’s torso was at least partially in the car. Londregan then fired twice at Cobb, both times hitting him 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 tried to reach for his service weapon — but she acknowledged it doesn’t disprove it either. She said prosecutors did not previously know that statement would be key to Londregan’s defense.

Moriarty also pointed to new statements from state patrol training officials presented 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 concluded they would lose at trial, Moriarty said. The judge could have dismissed the case without even sending it to the jury, she added.

In a heated news conference, Londregan’s attorney Chris Madel said Moriarty knew from the beginning that Londregan would argue that he used deadly force to protect himself and knew since April that the defense would claim that Cobb took the gun Londoner.

“This county attorney was determined to prosecute a police officer,” Madel said. “He was just waiting for a case like this to come along.” He added: “For her to come out now and say, ‘My God, I had no idea the defense was hiding this great evidence,’ is just absurd.”

Londregan, who was released on his own recognizance, remains on paid leave while the State Patrol investigates 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. Officers at the scene had better options than leaning into his car to try to free Cobb, but they “blew” their opportunities, she said. He could have told Cobb that he intended to arrest him instead of just ordering him out of the car. They could have let him go, she said, because they knew where to find him. Or he could have put stop sticks under his car.

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

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

“The simple fact is that no matter how many preposterous excuses Trooper Londregan gives to try to absolve himself, he shot and killed Ricky Cobb II from a half-way point, without any justification, and instead of trying him for murder, the District Attorney’s Office 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 harass the prosecutors enough and the charges will go away,” the lawyers continued. “People don’t believe excuses and neither do we.”