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Lawyer for man accused of killing North Dakota teen at street dance asks judge to drop murder charge

The lawyer argues troopers included erroneous information in their court filings that caused an uproar. The case drew the attention of former President Donald Trump and made national headlines.

brandtcayler
Shannon Brandt is charged with the murder of 18-year-old Cayler Ellingson.
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CARRINGTON, N.D. — A courtroom battle is brewing in a murder case that drew national attention.

The lawyer for 41-year-old Shannon Brandt, the man accused of hitting and killing a teenager with his SUV after a street dance in central North Dakota, said the prosecutor filed the murder charge based on "hype" over false accusations of Republican extremism, not evidence.

The six-page brief filed in Foster County District Court asks the judge to drop the murder charge against Brandt.

Brandt, from Glenfield, is accused of killing 18-year-old Cayler Ellingson on Sept. 18 in McHenry.

In filing, Brandt's lawyer, Mark Friese of Vogel Law Firm, said his client told 911 several times it was an accident and he was trying to get away from the teen.

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Friese accuses North Dakota Highway Patrol troopers of filing "erroneous" claims to support the murder charge. In particular, claims that Brandt believed Ellingson was part of a "Republican extremist group."

"The defense has done a nice job of kind of contradicting that and saying there is more here than meets the eye," said Blake Hankey of Hankey Law.

Hankey is a criminal defense lawyer not associated with the case but has worked several murder cases.

WDAY News asked for his interpretation of the argument, which also includes a 19-page transcript of the 911 call Brandt made that night.

"(It's) more of a self-defense type of argument and more of an accident as opposed to an intentional act," Hankey said.

Brandt's lawyer points to the 911 call, noting Brandt never said Ellingson was part of a "Republican extremist group," but rather Ellingson only threatened to call an extremist group to come "handle him."

Friese also argues troopers wrote that Brandt struck Ellingson because Ellingson was threatening him. Brandt told the 911 operator it was unintended in an effort to get away.

"I was trying to escape him. ... He got on my vehicle. ... I was scared. ... I never meant to hurt him. ... I didn't mean to. ... I was scared to death," Brandt said during the 911 call.

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That's where the big argument between the defense and prosecution will be, according to Hankey. "Did this action create or manifest the extreme indifference of human life?" he said.

Brandt's lawyer also noted the medical examiner ruled Ellingson's death an accident. The teen's blood alcohol content was nearly three times the legal limit to drive.

Troopers said Brandt was also drunk but have not disclosed his blood alcohol level.

"There were other options that the coroner could have chosen, including homicide, and they chose accident," Hankey said, adding that prosecutors have not responded to the defense's argument and likely have evidence that they have not made public yet to support their claim.

"I don't think a prosecutor would bring a murder charge if they could not prove it," Hankey said.

Prosecutors have not responded to the brief and likely won't until Brandt appears in court next week.

Matt Henson is an Emmy award-winning reporter/photographer/editor for WDAY. Prior to joining WDAY in 2019, Matt was the main anchor at WDAZ in Grand Forks for four years. He was born and raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia and attended college at Lyndon State College in northern Vermont, where he was recognized twice nationally, including first place, by the National Academy for Arts and Science for television production. Matt enjoys being a voice for the little guy. He focuses on crimes and courts and investigative stories. Just as often, he shares tear-jerking stories and stories of accomplishment. Matt enjoys traveling to small towns across North Dakota and Minnesota to share their stories. He can be reached at mhenson@wday.com and at 610-639-9215. When he's not at work (rare) Matt resides in Moorhead and enjoys spending time with his daughter, golfing and attending Bison and Sioux games.
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