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State v. Parker

Supreme Court of Minnesota

October 4, 2017

State of Minnesota, Respondent/Cross-Appellant,
Devon Derrick Parker, Appellant/Cross-Respondent.

         Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

          Lori Swanson, Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Michael O. Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney, Jean Burdorf, Assistant Hennepin County Attorney, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for respondent/cross-appellant.

          Cathryn Middlebrook, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Anders J. Erickson, Assistant State Public Defender, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for appellant/cross-respondent.


         1. Appellant/cross-respondent failed to prove that he was actually prejudiced by the district court's denial of his motion to change venue based on media reports of statements made by the county attorney during a pretrial press conference.

         2. The State established that the alleged prosecutorial misconduct-statements made by the county attorney during a pretrial press conference-did not affect the substantial rights of appellant/cross-respondent.

         3. The court of appeals erred when it reversed the sentence imposed by the district court that included an upward durational departure based on the zone-of-privacy factor in Minn. Stat. § 244.10, subd. 5a (2016).

         Affirmed in part and reversed in part.


          HUDSON, Justice.

         Following a jury trial, appellant/cross-respondent Devon Derrick Parker was convicted of second-degree intentional murder and sentenced to 480 months in prison, which reflected an upward durational departure from the presumptive range of 312 to 439 months. On appeal, Parker challenged his conviction, arguing both that the district court erred when it denied his motion for a change of venue and that the prosecutor committed misconduct during a pretrial press conference. Parker also challenged his sentence, arguing that the district court abused its discretion by imposing an upward durational sentencing departure. The court of appeals affirmed the conviction, but reversed the sentence and remanded for resentencing. We affirm the court of appeals' decision to uphold Parker's conviction, but disagree with its conclusion that the district court abused its discretion when it imposed an upward durational departure. We therefore affirm in part and reverse in part.


         On the morning of January 31, 2014, Devon Parker rang the doorbell of the back door of a residence in north Minneapolis where Thomas Sonnenberg lived with his wife. After Parker yelled "guys are chasing me" and "trying to kill me, " Sonnenberg unlocked the back door and Parker entered the Sonnenbergs' home.

         The Sonnenbergs, very concerned about the security of their home, had deadbolts on their doors that locked from either side, meaning that without a key, a person could neither enter nor exit the house. The day that Parker entered the Sonnenberg residence, Sonnenberg, as was his customary practice, had a loaded revolver holstered on his hip for protection. There were two other guns in the kitchen.

         After Parker entered his home, Sonnenberg dialed 911. Sonnenberg explained to the 911 operator that Parker had shown up at the back door, "said that he needed help[, ] and charged into" the kitchen once the door was unlocked. During the call, Sonnenberg told the operator that Parker believed people were chasing him. The operator assured Sonnenberg that "help [was] on the way" and planned to "stay on the phone" until the officers arrived. However, Parker then got on the line and said someone was trying to break into his brother's house at "3708 Bryant."[1] The call ended abruptly after Parker said, "Please come on now. Please." Parker understood at the time of the 911 call that Sonnenberg was trying to help him.

         After the 911 call ended, Parker asked Sonnenberg to let him out of the house, which was only possible with a key. Sonnenberg's wife, out of sight in the adjoining dining room, heard Sonnenberg respond by telling Parker that the police were on their way and that he would be safe where he was. Parker became uncomfortable when he realized that Sonnenberg kept multiple guns in his house and that Sonnenberg would not allow him to leave despite his requests. Sonnenberg's wife heard Parker ask Sonnenberg for coffee and a cigarette, to which Sonnenberg did not respond, and after a period of silence, Parker began counting, "One, two, three, four . . ." like he was "trying to scare" Sonnenberg. She then heard a click and, later, a gunshot. Parker claims that he heard the "click" when Sonnenberg was in control of the gun, so he disarmed Sonnenberg and directed him to sit at the kitchen table and wait for the police. According to Parker, Sonnenberg complied, but later made a sudden movement that caused Parker to fear for his life.

         It is undisputed that Parker fatally shot Sonnenberg in the forehead. Parker then entered the dining room, saw Sonnenberg's wife for the first time, forced her upstairs, and ordered her to find a key so Parker could leave the house. A short time later, the police arrived and arrested Parker.

         The State charged Parker with several offenses, including second-degree intentional murder, Minn. Stat. § 609.19, subd. 1(1) (2016). That same day, on February 3, 2014, the county attorney held a press conference during which he announced the charges against Parker and answered questions from the media. In his introduction, the county attorney commented on Sonnenberg's character, referring to him as a "fine man" and "a Good Samaritan who is doing what we always hope people do . . . help others." In addition to Sonnenberg's character, the county attorney mentioned Parker's prior record and sentencing history, saying, "Parker had a prior record of more minor crimes: obstruction with force; fifth-degree assault; interference with an MTC bus driver, but nothing significant. He had done time in the past, and ironically, he was supposed to appear on Friday, the day this incident occurred, in Hennepin County District Court to be sentenced on another crime." Finally, the county attorney twice alluded to Parker's constitutional right against self-incrimination. He stated, in response to a question from the press, that "Apparently Parker knows people in the neighborhood, but we don't know because the only person who really knows that is Parker, and he's not talking." Similarly, in response to a question about Parker's possible motive, the county attorney commented, "Our dilemma always is, the defendant's got his constitutional right not to talk, he's the one who can answer these questions frankly better than I can."

         The county attorney's office later posted the video of the press conference to its YouTube page, referring to Sonnenberg as a "Good Samaritan" in the title of the video. See HennepinAttorney, Man Charged in Murder of Good Samaritan, YouTube (Mar. 3, 2014), The media subsequently ran stories using the same "Good Samaritan" phrase.[2]

         In April 2015, over a year after the charging and press conference, Parker filed a motion to change venue under Minn. R. Crim. P. 25.02, which provides that a "change of venue must be granted whenever potentially prejudicial material creates a reasonable likelihood that a fair trial cannot be had." Minn. R. Crim. P. 25.02, subd. 3. At the motion hearing, Parker described the local media reports as a "feeding frenzy" that amplified the prosecutor's comments about Sonnenberg's character by consistently using the phrase "Good Samaritan, " which, according to Parker, had eliminated the possibility of a fair trial. The State urged the district court to deny Parker's motion to change venue. Citing State v. Moore, 481 N.W.2d 355, 364 (Minn. 1992) (affirming the denial of a motion to change venue where the 1-year-old news coverage was factual in content and the parties had an opportunity to question potential jurors about any exposure to publicity during voir dire), the State argued that a fair ...

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