Fairbanks found guilty in deputy's deathLife in prison mandatory for charge; sentencing set for Sept. 9
A jury found Thomas Lee Fairbanks guilty of first-degree murder in the 2009 shooting of Mahnomen County Sheriff’s Deputy Christopher Dewey, bringing gasps in the courtroom as the verdict was announced.
By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald
CROOKSTON — A jury here found Thomas Lee Fairbanks guilty of first-degree murder today in the 2009 shooting of Mahnomen County Sheriff’s Deputy Christopher Dewey, bringing gasps in the courtroom as the verdict was announced.
The charge carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. Prosecutors asked state District Judge Jeff Remick to sentence Fairbanks, who turns 35 this month, immediately. Defense attorneys asked for time to prepare for sentencing.
Remick met with both sides for 20 minutes in his chambers, then said Fairbanks will be sentenced Sept. 9 in Mahnomen, Minn. That’s appropriate, Remick said, because it is a Mahnomen County case, and the victims and relatives of victims live there, as well as Fairbanks’ family and friends.
The venue of the trial was moved to Crookston more than a year ago because of concerns about pre-trial publicity.
Defense attorney Ed Hellekson said Fairbanks will appeal the verdict.
The jury deliberated about nine hours Wednesday evening and today before telling the court about 3:15 p.m. it had reached a verdict, which was announced about 4 p.m.
The jury of five women and seven men also found Fairbanks guilty of four of six charges of first-degree assault on a peace officer for allegedly shooting the same gun toward the officers during the ensuing standoff Feb. 18, 2009.
On two of the assault charges, the jury found there wasn’t enough evidence Fairbanks shot toward the officers named in the charge. The first-degree assault of a peace officer carries a minimum sentence of 10 years and a maximum sentence of 20 years.
Fairbanks also was found guilty of two counts of second-degree assault for shooting toward two White Earth tribal conservation officers during the standoff; of failing to assist Dewey after he was shot; of being a felon in possession of a firearm and of trying to steal Dewey’s squad car after he shot him in the head and torso.
The judge’s ‘good heart’
Fairbanks’ mother, Roberta Fairbanks, was held on each side by a friend and a sister as she sobbed after the verdict. The courtroom was cleared to let eight relatives and friends of Fairbanks stand across the wooden panel from him. As he finally was able to face his family close up in the courtroom after a month-long trial in which he mostly had remained ramrod straight and stoic in his chair with little expression, Fairbanks’ face began to crumple and he cried as he looked at his mother.
Hellekson said it was a rare concession by Remick, coming from a “good heart,” to allow Fairbanks, at Hellekson’s request, about 20 minutes to talk and cry with his family after the verdict. It also was an unusual concession by Remick to the feelings of families on both sides to delay sentencing until next week and move it to Mahnomen, where those closest to the crimes will be able to be heard at sentencing, Hellekson said.
Dewey’s family and friends, including his widow, Emily, and prosecutors, had smiles after the verdict and hands were shook. The room was filled with law enforcement officers, too.
Eric Schieferdecker, one of two state assistant attorney generals who prosecuted Fairbanks, said his department’s rules keep him from commenting much.
But before he went into a room to talk with Dewey’s wife and other family members after the verdict, he said, “We’re happy for the Dewey family.”
Hellekson, who lives in Brainerd, Minn., and grew up in East Grand Forks, was one of two public defenders — with Jim Austad — who represented Fairbanks.
“Mr. Fairbanks was disappointed in the verdict. He thought he had established intoxication which would have been sufficient to get it down to second-degree murder.”
On Wednesday, the defense asked Remick to add the lesser, included charge of second-degree murder to the original first-degree charge. It would take no intent to kill for a jury to find for second-degree murder.
Defense will appeal
Hellekson said he will notify the court today that Fairbanks will appeal the verdict. The state’s appellant office now will take over the case, he said.
He expects a number of issues, including rulings by Remick about what the defense could argue during closing, as well as the racial makeup of the jury, will be raised in appeal, Hellekson said.
A pre-trial study by the defense found that the pool of 100 people examined for the jury had only two people who indicated they were minorities, Hellekson said.
But a study by the defense found that 8 percent of Polk County’s population is minorities and he had asked that the jury pool reflect that percentage, Hellekson said.
He objected when one woman, who said she was American Indian, was tossed from the jury by prosecutors. Remick denied his objection, saying the prosecutors had valid, non-racial reasons for vetoing the jury candidate.
He had asked that the trial be moved to Crow Wing County, surrounding Brainerd, Hellekson said. It’s not just because he lives there, but because the population is more diverse, reflecting something closer to Mahnomen County’s large American Indian population, Hellekson said.
“Mr. Fairbanks was concerned with the racial profile of the jury,” Hellekson said, and he would have preferred more minorities on the jury. None of the 12 jurors were racial minorities, he said.
Despite his concerns about the racial or ethnic make-up of the jury, Hellekson said, “It was a great jury.” The 11 days of interviewing about 100 people to get 16 on the jury panel — Remick wanted enough to last the long trial — was an unusually long event.
“The tedious process of only getting one juror a day for two weeks, it was a careful screening and we picked the most qualified people,” Hellekson said. “I think Judge Remick was very patient with that process.”
“It was a very intelligent jury,” Hellekson said. “Most of them were professionals, some with advanced degrees.”
One woman on the jury who asked not to be identified said this evening: “I just need to relax a little bit and think about everything” before saying much.
“We knew it was an important thing and wanted to make sure we followed all the court’s directions and the evidence,” she said. “It’s not something you just decide quickly.”
The jury could have taken the 12 charges against Fairbanks in any order during deliberation.
But she said they took them in the sequence given in the indictment.
Which means they first decided the big question: that Fairbanks committed first-degree murder of a peace officer, which carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison. They could have, instead, found him guilty of second-degree murder, which requires no intent to kill and has a maximum sentence of 40 years.
The jury’s conscientiousness can be seen, perhaps, in that, after finding that Fairbanks should spend his life in prison, they took most of their time in deciding the remaining 11 charges, including finding Fairbanks not guilty of two of the assault charges against law enforcement officers.
Twice the jury asked for the judge’s assistance, both times involving the question of whether Fairbanks shot toward certain officers during the standoff.
Once they wanted to listen again to a 10-minute audio recording of officers during the standoff discussing what they figured was a gunshot fired toward officers during the standoff.
And once they asked if the single count involving assault against a police vehicle behind or in which five officers took cover required finding that all five were assaulted by a gunshot. Remick told them the charge required “at least one” of the officers to have been assaulted. The jury returned to deliberate two more hours. They ordered in pizza today — as they did Wednesday evening — for a late lunch about 1:30 p.m. and apparently worked through lunch.
Praise for jury
Attorneys from both sides praised the work of the jury.
The five women and seven women seemed hard-working, taking notes often during testimony, examining exhibits closely and rarely if ever showing lack of attention during the long trial with hundreds of exhibits and nearly 60 witnesses.
Juror Steve Delaney impressed attorneys from both sides during his juror interview by his lengthy explanations about how important he thinks it is to be fair and hear all sides. He lives in Crookston and works for a manufacturing firm.
After the trial, he seemed spent and declined to comment much on the deliberations.
“It’s a very tough thing at this time to describe,” he said. “It was just very tough.”
Dewey died Aug. 9, 2010, in hospice care from complications from the gunshot to his head and his funeral drew many law enforcement colleagues.
Mahomen County Sheriff Doug Krier said today that Dewey’s badge number, 909, has been retired.
“Nobody else will ever wear that number,” Krier said.
Dewey’s replacement, Deputy Jake Thompson, was in court today with a handful of other deputies from the county. It’s been a long time of stress for his department of 10 deputies, in addition to himself, Krier said.
“I think the best thing that is going to come out of this is that we will have some closure for the department but especially for the family (of Dewey),” Krier said. “This has been going on for 2 and a half years.”
Having such a shooting of a law enforcement officer is so rare and damaging, he said.
But Deputy Dewey was doing his job well and was a victim of the danger all law enforcement officers face on the job, Krier said.
Dozens of law enforcement officers from across the region responded that day to the call of an officer down in Mahnomen on that frigid February day after Dewey was shot.
One State Patrol Trooper testified at trial he heard about it while near Thief River Falls that morning, and covered the 60 miles or more to Mahnomen in 28 minutes.
“Everything that happened, the officers did everything they were supposed to do,” Krier said. “As to why it happened, we still don’t have the answer.”