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Jury finds Fargo man not guilty of murder in fatal staircase fall

The murder count against Cody Plumlee alleged he caused Kirsten Knaus' death while entering a home without permission and with intent to commit a crime once he got inside. The Class AA felony, the most severe charge the state of North Dakota can bring against a person, carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.

Cody Plumlee looks upward and cries while seated between his lawyers.
Cody Plumlee reacts to the not guilty verdict in his murder trial at Cass County District Court on Thursday, April 7, 2022.
David Samson / The Forum
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FARGO — A Cass County District Court jury returned a not guilty verdict on Thursday, April 7, in the murder trial of a 29-year-old Fargo man accused in the death of his girlfriend after she was injured in a fall down a flight of stairs.

The jury of 11 women and one man deliberated for over three hours Wednesday afternoon and resumed deliberations at 9 a.m. Thursday. They announced they had reached a verdict shortly after 1 p.m.

The case involves Cody Plumlee, who was charged with murder after allegedly pushing Kirsten Knaus down a flight of steps the night of Dec. 7, 2020. She died in the hospital about two weeks later.

The jury found Plumlee not guilty of murder, aggravated assault, reckless endangerment and burglary but guilty on charges of theft, reckless driving and giving false information to police.

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Cody Plumlee reacts to the verdict is his trial at Cass County District Court on Thursday, April 7, 2022.
David Samson / The Forum

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On Tuesday, Plumlee testified Knaus was hitting him in the head with a frying pan when he pushed her away during an altercation at a north Fargo home where Knaus was in the process of moving in.

According to Plumlee's testimony, tension had been building between the two due to a conflict involving a vehicle and cellphone Plumlee said he helped provide to Knaus.

During the trial's closing arguments Wednesday, prosecutor Renata Olafson Selzer asserted Knaus and a friend who lived in the home, Lisa Weaver, were protecting themselves when they engaged in a physical altercation with Plumlee after he kicked in a locked door to the home.

Jeff Bredahl, Plumlee's attorney, said during his closing arguments that Plumlee was justified in defending himself during the incident. He maintained that after pushing Knaus away outside an entrance to the home, Plumlee was not aware that Knaus subsequently fell down a flight of stairs after she staggered across, or in some other way fell over, a threshold into the house.

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Defense attorney Jeff Bredahl speaks about the verdict in the Cody Plumlee trial in Cass County Distrtict Court on Thursday, April 7, 2022.
David Samson / The Forum

Bredahl said that scenario was possible given the level of methamphetamine Knaus had in her system, which he said could have made her unsteady.

Selzer told jurors the version of events Plumlee recounted in testimony he gave Tuesday was at odds with statements he made to police the night of the incident.

During the interview with police, Plumlee said he saw Knaus' face as she fell down the stairs, and he said he remembers thinking in that moment he wished he could grab her and stop her from falling.

Selzer told jurors that version of events provided by Plumlee on the night of Knaus' fall was consistent with the prosecution's contention that the incident took place at the top of the stairway as Plumlee tried to get past Knaus while he was making off with vehicle keys belonging to Weaver.

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Bredahl maintained the altercation took place on a small deck outside the house.

Selzer told jurors the state's case had proven every element of every charge Plumlee faced. Bredahl countered that the state had not proven every element of four of the seven counts Plumlee faced, including the charges of murder, aggravated assault, reckless endangerment and burglary.

Knaus suffered a traumatic brain injury in the fall down the stairs, and she died in the hospital on Dec. 22, 2020.

Medical professionals testified that Knaus died after a breathing tube malfunctioned and air was forced under her skin.

The murder count against Plumlee alleged he caused Knaus' death while entering Weaver's home without permission and with intent to commit a crime once he got inside. The Class AA felony, the most severe charge the state of North Dakota can bring against a person, carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.

After the verdicts were read Thursday, Judge Wade Webb sentenced Plumlee to three years in prison followed by two years of supervised released for the theft of vehicle charge and lesser sentences for the other two counts Plumlee was convicted of, with all of the time to be served concurrently.

Plumlee was also given credit for 487 days already served.

Bredahl said after the verdicts were read that he felt justice was done.

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"It's a tragedy that someone had died, no doubt about it. But, it wasn't murder and it wasn't aggravated assault and it wasn't reckless endangerment," Bredahl said.

"Two wrongs don't make a right, and I think the jury made the right decision in this case," added Bredahl, whose daughter, Nicole Bredahl, recently won a not guilty verdict for a defendant who, like Plumlee, faced a murder charge in Cass County District Court.

"I'm proud of her," Bredahl said, referring to his daughter, adding his daughter won her case in the same courtroom and against a prosecution team that included the same prosecutor that he faced in Plumlee's case

Speaking on behalf of Knaus' family, Cass County State's Attorney Birch Burdick said after the verdicts were read Thursday: "We're disappointed in the outcome of the trial. We appreciate the jury's efforts, however, and respect the decisions they have made. We were hoping they would see it differently."

Asked whether he felt the jury may have found it difficult to navigate the wording of the murder charge, which was dependent on the jury finding Plumlee guilty of burglary in order for the murder charge to apply, Burdick said he didn't know.

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Cass County State's Attorney Birch Burdick talks about verdict in the Cody Plumlee trial in Cass County Distrtict Court on Thursday, April 7, 2022.
David Samson / The Forum

"It would be interesting to find out what jurors thought," Burdick said. "In this case, it's hard for me to say what they found difficult, and only they can tell us that."

Burdick said the fact prosecutors were not able to secure convictions in two recent high-profile murder cases has prompted reflection within his office.

"We have had jury verdicts recently that surprised us a little bit," Burdick said. "It's been incumbent upon us to think about what that may say to us. But we will pause and think about how we have charged things, how we have presented things to the jury and whether there are other things we can learn. In the end, we work on behalf of the public ... doing the things we think are right."

Related Topics: CRIME AND COURTSFARGO
I'm a reporter and a photographer and sometimes I create videos to go with my stories.

I graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead and in my time with The Forum I have covered a number of beats, from cops and courts to business and education.

I've also written about UFOs, ghosts, dinosaur bones and the planet Pluto.

You may reach me by phone at 701-241-5555, or by email at dolson@forumcomm.com
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