Relationship between Fargo detective, prosecutor could impact murder case
Cass County Assistant State's Attorney SheraLynn Ternes disclosed the relationship with Detective Troy Hanson to her office in mid-December. The defense in the Anthony Reese case said they were informed about the relationship Friday.
FARGO — A dating relationship between a Cass County prosecutor and Fargo detective could impact the outcome of the murder case of a pregnant woman who was fatally shot in November.
Attorneys for 36-year-old Anthony Reese Jr., of Moorhead, who is charged with three counts of murder, asked on Wednesday, May 18, in Cass County District Court why the relationship between lead prosecutor SheraLynn Ternes and Fargo Police Detective Troy Hanson was just disclosed to the defense Friday.
The Cass County State’s Attorney's Office has known about the relationship since mid-December, State’s Attorney Birch Burdick confirmed Friday to The Forum.
“We are unclear why the State’s Attorney Office decided to sit on material information as to this matter,” defense attorney Tracy Hines said. “There’s absolutely no excuse for withholding this information for this period of time.”
Ternes did not comment on the relationship in court, nor did she respond to a message left by The Forum. Hanson also declined to comment when contacted by The Forum and referred questions to a spokesperson for the Fargo Police Department.
A response from that spokesperson did not come before Wendesday afternoon.
Reese has been accused of killing 32-year-old April Carbone and 43-year-old Richard Pittman on Nov. 17 at Melet Plastics. Reese, Carbone and Pittman all worked at the engineered plastics company at 401 27th St. N. in Fargo.
Reese fought with Pittman while fixing machinery Nov. 17, according to a criminal complaint. Reese was fired and left, but he returned with a gun, the complaint alleged.
Reese got into another fight and shot Pittman multiple times, the complaint said. He then turned the gun on a fleeing Carbone and shot her multiple times, according to the complaint.
Carbone was eight months pregnant with Pittman’s child. It is one of the few cases in North Dakota where prosecutors have sought a charge for the death of an unborn child.
Reese faces life in prison if convicted of murder.
Emails obtained Friday by The Forum from the State's Attorney's Office confirmed Ternes was dating Hanson.
Burdick did not say when Ternes and Hanson started dating, but he said it was a "fairly new relationship" when Ternes informed him about it in December.
Hanson is listed in court documents as a witness in the Reese case. The relationship has brought up several concerns for the defense that need to be investigated, Hines said.
Defense attorney Nicole Bredahl, who is also representing Reese, said it is premature to say whether the relationship could result in a call for dismissal of the case. The defense will look into the issue to determine how to move forward, Hines said.
How the relationship will impact the case remains unclear. It’s also unknown how many cases Hanson investigated that Ternes is or was prosecuting.
“What I can tell you is that my attorney has not been involved in any trials during that time in which the officer was called as a witness,” Burdick told The Forum on Friday. “After learning of the relationship, we have reassigned cases in which that attorney might otherwise be taking that officer’s testimony or disclosed the relationship to opposing counsel.”
Burdick said he was unaware of any violations because of the relationship.
"That said, we are taking steps to ensure we follow prudent practices of disclosure or reassignment involving future cases which may involve both people," he said.
Burdick did not return messages left by The Forum on Wednesday seeking a response to Hines' comments.
An open records request suggests Ternes and Hanson were involved in other cases where at least one other defense attorney questioned why the relationship wasn't disclosed earlier.
Defense attorney Tanya Martinez wrote in a May 9 email to the State's Attorney Office that she found out about the relationship before it was disclosed to her by prosecutors. Ternes and Hanson were on a case against one of her clients that was filed in February, according to the email.
"I am struggling to find a reason why this hasn't been disclosed yet and why Ms. Ternes has not been removed from these cases," Martinez wrote.
Burdick responded May 10 to Martinez, saying Ternes would be replaced as the case's prosecutor.
Martinez declined to comment to The Forum.
Ternes and Hanson also worked on the Brandon Roosevelt Grant case. The 44-year-old is expected to go to trial May 23 in connection to a Feb. 21, 2021, shooting outside the Bismarck Tavern in downtown Fargo.
Prosecutor Paul Emerson will question Hanson in that case, Assistant State's Attorney Ryan Younggren said in an email. Grant's lawyer, Steve Mottinger, said he plans to argue self-defense in the shooting that injured three people, according to the email.
"Steve said he doesn't think it's a big deal and it wouldn't matter at trial," Younggren said of Mottinger's stance on the Ternes-Hanson relationship.
Mottinger didn't return a message left by The Forum Wednesday.
There is no rule that prevents prosecutors from dating detectives, said Mark Friese, a criminal defense attorney not connected to the Reese case.
National prosecution standards say a prosecutor should excuse themselves from a case when their "personal interests ... would cause a fair-minded, objective observer to conclude that the prosecutor’s neutrality, judgment or ability to administer the law in an objective manner may be compromised.”
Prosecutors are supposed to have a sense of neutrality so they can make decisions without bias, said Brian Toay, another criminal defense attorney not connected to the Reese case. For example, if a detective discovers information, that could change the course of prosecution, Toay said.
That could upset the prosecutor, so if the detective is dating the prosecutor, the investigator may not mention the information, Toay added. A prosecutor also may not challenge a detective if they are dating, he added.
"If they are in a personal romantic relationship with a witness in the case, I think that absolutely affects their neutrality," Toay said.
In Brady v. Maryland, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled vital evidence that could be used to determine a person's guilt or punishment must be disclosed to the defense.
Toay said he wasn't suggesting prosecutors violated Brady in the Reese case. As a defense attorney, he would be concerned if a detective and prosecutor who were dating discussed a case outside the courtroom or work.
"Those are witness statements that need to be disclosed," Toay said. "Are they having dinner while talking about the case? That's the prosecutor interviewing the witness.
"When you have somebody who's having a lot of casual time with a person, it's likely the case is going to come up. Certainly, in a murder case, it would."