Grand Jury Records Withheld in Hostage Case
A man suing on behalf of an apparent hostage fatally shot by police cannot access grand jury transcripts that he says would reveal collusion, a federal judge ruled.
Dawn Marie Pfister was a passenger in a car that hit another and crashed into a barrier wall on the highway near Chaska, Minn., in February 2014, court records show.
When 11 officers responded to the scene, the driver, Mathew Serbus, exited the car holding Pfister, with a knife behind her back, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday in Minnesota Federal Court.
The situation escalated to the point that several officers shot Serbus to protect Pfister. Then officer Brady Juell allegedly shot and killed Pfister.
A Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent at the scene later reportedly said that Juell shot Pfister because, after Serbus was shot, she came at the officers with the knife.
But Philip Sieff, the next-of-kin trustee for Pfister, says in his April 21 lawsuit that other agents solicited false statements during the investigation to protect Juell.
A grand jury ultimately entered a no bill as to several officers.
Sieff then tried to secure the testimony transcripts in state court, based on alleged inconsistency between the officers’ and agents’ descriptions of the traffic stop.
The state court partially granted the petition as to six witness transcripts, but rejected Sieff’s claim that witnesses colluded with each other to coordinate their narrative.
Sieff sued Juell and the City of Chaska in Federal Court, again requesting access to the remaining witnesses’ grand jury transcripts.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Leo Brisbois denied the motion, and Sieff appealed. But U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson rejected the appeal Thursday.
The federal judge tossed aside Sieff’s claim that Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman contradicted himself by announcing that, for the sake of justice, accountability, and transparency, the county will no longer use grand juries in police shooting cases.
“Plaintiff’s argument borders on the absurd,” Magnuson wrote. “First, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office maintains its earlier-enunciated position in its response to plaintiff’s appeal. But even if Hennepin County had changed its position, the policy change announcement does not relate to this case. First, Freeman did not indicate that the change is retroactive. Second, because the change applies only in Hennepin County, there is no basis to conclude that it has any bearing on future grand juries other than perhaps a tangential effect. The need for secrecy in grand jury proceedings remains intact.”
The policy change does not justify violating the secrecy of grand jury proceedings, the 7-page ruling states.
“Plaintiff’s contention that inconsistencies in some of the transcripts meant that there would be inconsistencies in the others does not demonstrate a particularized need for any of the seven remaining transcripts, because plaintiff ‘only speculate[d] that the grand jury testimony of those additional officers [would] be of use,'” Magnuson wrote. “Judge Brisbois’s conclusion that plaintiff’s supplemental evidence ‘is not materially different in kind from that reviewed by’ the Hennepin County court and that to find that the remaining witnesses had colluded, the court would be forced to ‘itself resort to speculation’ was also appropriate.”
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One of Sieff’s attorneys, Robert Bennett with Gaskins, Bennett, Birrell, Schupp in Minneapolis, said, “We are just planning on trying our case on the very substantial evidence we do have.”
Juell and Chaska’s attorneys — Jason Hiveley, Jon Iverson, and Nathan Midolo with Iverson Reuvers Condon in Bloomington, Minn. — and Hennepin County Attorney Daniel Rogan did not return requests for comment Sunday.
Located about 30 miles southwest of Minneapolis, Chaska has a population of more than 24,000 people and is about 88 percent white with a median household income of just over $76,000, as of 2014, census records show.
Published by Courthouse News Service.