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Jermaine Stansberry: Did the courts convict the wrong man for murder; and does it really matter?

In the early morning of September 1, 2002, a University of Minnesota football player named Brandon Hall was fatally shot near the corner of Hennepin Avenue and Third Street North in the warehouse section of Minneapolis. Three suspects - all young black males - were arrested: Jermaine O. Stansberry, Raymond Hardimon, and Lee E. Cain. Stansberry was put on trial for the murder and convicted. He is now serving a 30-year sentence in the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Stillwater.

The murder of Brandon Hall (who had played in his first collegiate football game earlier that afternoon) followed an altercation between Hall’s friend, Damien J. Haye, and a group including Stansberry and Hardimon. The last two individuals physically assaulted Haye. Hall and other Gopher football players later arrived on the scene, presumably to avenge the assault on their friend. It was then that someone pulled a gun on Hall and killed him.

Jermaine Stansberry was arrested by a Minneapolis police officer while walking west at a leisurely pace on a sidewalk on the south side of Third Street, not far from the scene of the murder. Raymond Hardimon and a companion, Lee Cain, were arrested in a parking lot on the south side of Third Street mid way between Hennepin and First Avenues as they attempted to flee the area in a white Dodge minivan. A black gun, later determined to be the murder weapon, was discovered on the pavement next to the minivan.

The Minneapolis police took Stansberry, Hardimon, and Cain into custody. The three suspects were questioned individually within hours of the murder. Stansberry refused to answer any questions at that time. (He later said he had wanted an attorney to be present.) Hardimon and Cain both answered questions but were evasive. Tapes of the interviews indicate that the Minneapolis police then regarded Stansberry as the chief suspect in Brandon Hall’s murder.

On September 5th, the Hennepin County Attorney announced that Jermaine Stansberry was being charged with second-degree murder, aggravated robbery (of Damien Haye’s necklace), and felony possession of a firearm. Raymond Hardimon was charged with aggravated robbery for the attack on Haye. Lee Cain was not charged with any crime due to “lack of evidence”. Hardimon served time in the Moose Lake state prison before being released.

Questions have been raised as to whether the Hennepin County Attorney’s office prosecuted the right man. At the time of the trial, this office was led by Amy Klobuchar, now U.S. Senator. Judge Pamela Alexander presided over Stansberry’s trial which was held in Hennepin County District Court in the spring of 2004. Stansberry was represented by an attorney engaged by his family.

Points of evidence pointing to Stansberry’s innocence in the murder (though not in the prior assault) are the following:

1. A DNA residue recovered from the murder weapon was analyzed at the state crime lab. According to the laboratory report, the residue found on the gun included “a mixture of DNA from three or more individuals. Raymond Hardimon cannot be excluded as a contributor to this DNA mixture. Jermaine Octavious Stansberry, Lee Earl Cain, Brandon D. Hall and Damien Jamal Haye can be excluded as contributors to this DNA mixture.”

2. The Minneapolis police failed to do a test of gunpowder residue on the clothing of the three arrested individuals saying that such tests gave unreliable results.

3. After his initial refusal to answer questions on the night of the murder, the Minneapolis police declined to interrogate Jermaine Stansberry, despite repeated messages from Stansberry to the police that he would be willing to be interrogated. Letters were sent both to prosecutor Klobuchar and judge Alexander shortly before the scheduled trial pointing out the failure of the Minneapolis police to question Stansberry. Nevertheless, a decision was made to proceed immediately to trial.

4. The defense attorney was unable to secure either Raymond Hardimon or Lee Cain as witnesses at Stansberry’s trial. Hardimon declined to appear citing 5th amendment protections. An investigator had given a subpoena to Lee Cain’s mother, but the mother failed to pass it along to her son..

5. The murder weapon was recovered on the pavement of a parking lot next to the Dodge minivan where Raymond Hardimon and Lee Cain were arrested. Supplements to reports of the Minneapolis police include the following:

Supplement 13: Officer Krebs heard a gunshot. He approached a white van facing westward which was pulling out of a parking space. Sgt. Nelson had Lee Cain, the driver, on the ground. Sgt. Walker took Raymond Hardimon from the passenger’s side of the van. “Sgt. Walker indicated that when he had removed Hardimon from a car, a pistol had fallen near his feet as the car door opened. I observed at this time a black semi-automatic handgun on the ground.”

Supplement 20 (taken in the initial interrogation): Hardimon first denied knowing Lee Cain; then changed his story. “Hardimon is unable to account for the gun which dropped out of the van although he does acknowledge seeing the gun.” The interview was terminated because of Hardimon’s “indignant nature”. Lee Cain testified that he had been with Hardimon for the entire evening.

Supplement 25 (quoting officer Krebs): “The gun believed to be used in the shooting was recovered from Hardimon’s possession as he and Cain attempted to enter a motor vehicle and flee within seconds after the shooting and at a distance from the victim of less than half a block.”

Conclusion: The semi-automatic pistol found on the pavement near the Dodge minivan was indisputably the murder weapon. According to the testimony of Minneapolis police officers on the scene, this gun was either “recovered from Hardimon’s possession” or from the pavement near where Hardimon stepped out of the van. Stansberry meanwhile was in police custody, lying on the sidewalk at least fifty feet away.

So, what convicted Stansberry?

(1) Several of the Gopher football players testified that the shooter was the man with “the white #23 (wizard) jersey”. Stansberry was wearing such a jersey when apprehended. However, Raymond Hardimon was also wearing a sports jersey that looked much the same. It, too, was white, but lacked numerals. The witnesses, questioned a week after the shooting, had ample opportunity to compare their stories. At least one witness identified Hardimon as the shooter.

(2) To explain the transfer of the murder weapon from Stansberry’s possession to the pavement next to the Dodge minivan, the prosecutor, Bob Streitz, relied on the testimony of a single witness, Brandy Commodore, to the effect that she had seen Stansberry engage in a “throwing motion” and had heard a heavy metallic object strike the ground. However, Stansberry was at least fifty feet away from the place where the gun was recovered. There was a 4-foot high concrete wall between him and that spot. Another car was parked between this wall and the minivan. By referring repeatedly (five times) to Commodore’s claim to have seen a “throwing motion” in his closing arguments, prosecutor Streitz was able to convince the jury that Stansberry had thrown the gun from a spot on a sidewalk down the street over both the wall and the parked car so that it landed neatly on the pavement of a parking lot several feet from the passenger’s side of the van while several Minneapolis police officers surrounded the van. (These officers evidently saw or heard nothing as the gun allegedly whizzed through the air and struck the pavement next to them.)

(3) Jermaine Stansberry became angry on the witness stand at the trial. He insisted on adding information which was not requested in the questioning. This belligerent attitude might have made a bad impression on the jury.

Subsequent events:

Lee Cain later told a friend what had happened. According to a written statement from that friend: “A month went by from the killing of Brandon Hall and I ran into Mr. Lee Cain and he said to me he gave Raymond Hardimon - a.k.a. “Little Cass” - the gun. Minutes later Lee said Raymond Hardimon came running back to the van with the gun saying: drive, hurry, go, go, go.”

Brandy Commodore told friends that, contrary to her sworn testimony, she had not actually seen anything - i.e. a “throwing motion” - on the evening of Brandon Hall’s murder. She was influenced by what others were saying. There are signed statements to that effect from two of Commodore’s friends. Commodore herself has written Stansberry offering to make amends.

According to Stansberry, Raymond Hardimon himself confessed to a prison inmate that he had shot Brandon Hall. Stansberry also alleges that another prison inmate told him that he saw Hardimon shoot Brandon Hall.

Summing up:

Jermaine Stansberry was a drug dealer and gang member. For a long time, the Minneapolis police had unsuccessfully tried to pin various crimes on him. Stansberry had also filed a lawsuit against one of the officers. He deserved some time in prison for his part in the attack on Damien Haye. However, it crosses a certain line - a big line - to put him on trial for a murder which he almost certainly did not commit.

The Minneapolis police may have had reasons for disliking Jermaine Stansberry. That does not excuse them for building a false case against him in the murder of Brandon Hall. Brandon Hall’s uncle, a Detroit police officer who attended the trial, told Stansberry’s mother that something seemed fishy about the way the Minneapolis police had gathered and presented evidence at this trial.

But the buck stops at the Hennepin County Attorney’s office. It’s inconceivable that the county prosecutors, from Amy Klobuchar on down, could have believed that Stansberry was the shooter when the murder weapon was found on the pavement of a parking lot next to a Dodge minivan as Raymond Hardimon opened the door and Jermaine Stansberry was apprehended some distance down the street. Oratorical skill does not excuse bad judgment in prosecuting the case.

After the shooting, Hardimon fled down Third Street to the parking lot where his friend, Lee Cain, was waiting in the minivan. Several witnesses testified that they had seen the shooter run. By all accounts, Stansberry was walking slowly away from the scene. He had been seen with Hardimon earlier in the evening. The gut reaction of certain bystanders was to point the finger at Stansberry and say: “He’s the one. He did the shooting.” But the evidence, including DNA evidence, suggests otherwise.

Several key witnesses could exonerate Stansberry if they were allowed to offer new testimony at this time. One can only guess what deals and threats were made to keep them from testifying at Stansberry’s trial. But let bygones be bygones. Stansberry has already served five years in jail or prison. Offer the witnesses immunity from prosecution. Let them say what really happened on that fateful night in September 2002. Then, perhaps, a man innocent of that murder can be released from prison and the real murderer, who is now walking the streets, can be put on trial for shooting Brandon Hall.