Minn. beheading conviction stands
ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Supreme Court has upheld a Grand Rapids man’s murder conviction and life sentence for his involvement in the beheading death of a Hibbing man in June 2016.
The state’s high court issued the unanimous opinion Wednesday, Jan. 2, in the case of Joseph Christen Thoresen, who was convicted of premeditated first-degree murder in the death of 20-year-old David Alexander Haiman in rural Itasca County. The conviction carried an automatic life sentence without any opportunity for parole.
Thoresen, 38, appealed the case on the grounds that prosecution was based largely on the unreliable testimony of an accomplice and other witnesses who were under the influence of drugs. He also alleged the district court erred by not instructing jurors about the credibility of those witnesses.
A central figure in the case was his one-time girlfriend, Kayleene Danielle Greniger, who admitted to using a machete to decapitate the victim. In a plea agreement that has her serving 30 years in prison for intentional second-degree murder, Greniger agreed to cooperate in Thoresen’s case, testifying that he was the main aggressor.
Greniger told jurors at Thoresen’s trial that he planned the slaying, luring Haiman out to a forestry road near the Ball Club area, striking him over the head with a baseball bat and stabbing him multiple times.
On appeal, defense attorneys contended Greniger provided much of the damning evidence against Thoresen, and without corroboration. Additionally, they said, Judge Lois Lang should have provided a specific instruction to jurors about the credibility of the many witnesses who had been under the influence of drugs at the time of the incident.
The Supreme Court rejected those claims.
“We hold that the accomplice testimony was sufficiently corroborated and the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the requested jury instructions,” Justice Anne McKeig wrote in the 14-page opinion. “We therefore affirm.”
Greniger testified that she had previously been sexually assaulted by both men and that on the day of Haiman's killing Thoresen had tied him up in the bedroom of their Grand Rapids apartment. She said that Thoresen repeatedly punched him and left him on the ground for hours while they left the apartment.
They later retrieved Haiman and began driving around in the victim's car, she said, smoking methamphetamine and visiting acquaintances. At one point during an ATV ride, Greniger testified, Thoresen privately told her they were going to kill Haiman.
She said Thoresen eventually stopped and got Haiman out of the car, quickly striking him over the head with the bat. She testified that Haiman dropped to the ground and was again hit with the bat before both of them started stabbing the victim. Greniger admitted using the machete to decapitate Haiman before Thoresen disposed of his remains in the woods.
Thoresen's defense attorneys aggressively attacked Greniger’s testimony, contending that she was the main aggressor and calling her "conniving, calculated and a killer." But a jury took less than three hours to find him guilty of two counts, including premeditated murder.
The Supreme Court said Greniger’s account was consistent with testimony of other witnesses as well as physical evidence collected in the investigation.
Other witnesses recalled Thoresen tying up the victim and assaulting him, the court noted. One witness testified that he had seen the murder weapons and that Thoresen had confessed the crime to him. Another recalled Thoresen and Greniger taking the ATV ride. An autopsy also was consistent with Greniger’s testimony that Thoresen struck Haiman in the head with a baseball bat and then stabbed him with a knife, the court said.
“The corroborative evidence tends to affirm the truth of Greniger’s accomplice testimony and to point to Thoresen’s guilt,” McKeig wrote.
The Supreme Court also found the jury instructions to be sufficient. In addition to a general credibility instruction read to jurors, testimony and attorney arguments made clear that some of the witnesses were under the influence at the time of the events, the justices said.
“The substance of the requested instruction was included in the jury instructions given to the jury,” McKeig wrote. “Because the jury heard testimony that witnesses had used mind-altering substances, it was able to consider the effect of these substances on the reliability of the witnesses’ testimony.”
The high court was Thoresen’s final hope for securing a release from the mandatory life sentence. In Minnesota, first-degree murder appeals go directly to the Supreme Court.
Thoresen remains at the maximum-security Minnesota Correctional Facility in Oak Park Heights.