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McFeely: String 'em up? Not so fast, former federal prosecutor says

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Access to the bridge over the Red River is closed Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, on 76th Avenue North, Fargo, while the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigates an old farm north of Moorhead for the murder of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor2 / 2

String 'em up.

That's what the residents of Fargo-Moorhead want to do to the two people charged in the kidnapping and death of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind.

Harsh, to the point of being primal. But the public wants blood and it's hard to blame them. Outrage directed at Brooke Crews and William Hoehn is at a fever pitch. A 22-year-old woman has been murdered, her body wrapped in plastic and bound with duct tape before being dumped in the Red River, but not before an eight-month-old fetus was removed alive from her body. It is a grisly crime unlike any we've seen.

Details of the case indicate it might be a crime that crossed state lines from North Dakota to Minnesota. That has people calling for the death penalty because it revives the memory of Dru Sjodin.

Sjodin, a University of North Dakota student, was the victim of assault and murder in 2003 at the depraved hands of Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. He kidnapped Dru in Grand Forks, took her across the state border into Minnesota and killed her.

Because Rodriguez crossed the state line, and because prosecutors wanted to seek the death penalty not available under North Dakota or Minnesota law, he was tried in federal court. Rodriguez was found guilty in 2006 and sentenced to death.

So, the people say, string 'em up.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind.

We are a long ways from knowing all the facts in the case. The investigation continues. Officials still don't know for certain the farmstead north of Moorhead is a crime scene. We don't know if Savanna was taken across the state line and, if she was, whether she was alive or dead when it happened.

We don't know whether the crimes committed meet the standards for federal prosecution. And, if they do, whether prosecutors should make it a federal crime and seek the death penalty. Neither Cass County State's Attorney Birch Burdick nor North Dakota U.S. Attorney Chris Myers would comment about whether this case might meet the standard for a federal crime. Nor would other local attorneys familiar with the federal court system.

But a longtime federal prosecutor from Alabama, familiar with death penalty cases, said officials and the public should tread lightly when it comes to seeking a federal conviction.

"Unless there is a compelling federal interest, these cases are almost always better being tried as a local case," said Joyce White Vance, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama from 2009-17 and now a lecturer at the University of Alabama law school. "The people with the real expertise, tools and resources tend to be the state district attorneys who do this day in and day out."

White said it's natural for the public to seek the most severe penalty in the immediate aftermath of a horrific crime, especially in states that don't have the death penalty like North Dakota and Minnesota. But she said a better result for the victim's family, the public and prosecutors might be a sentence of life in prison without the chance of parole.

White mentioned the likelihood of a person sentenced to death appealing for years and sitting on death row, to the growing frustration of the victim's family and the public. She wasn't referring to Rodriguez, but could've been. He still sits on death row at federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. There seems little chance he'll be put to death anytime soon.

"Everybody might be better off if it's a state crime because of all the complications of prosecuting a federal case and seeing the potential penalty to the end," White Vance said. "It might be better to leave the case in the hands of the state because it might be a more satisfying outcome."

String 'em up? Maybe not, even if it's a possibility. That would be a hard pill for many to swallow after Savanna's terrible death.

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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