Last witnesses testify in Fitch murder trial
ST. CLOUD, Minn. - Testimony in Brian Fitch Sr.'s trial on charges he murdered a Mendota Heights police officer ended Thursday without the defendant taking the witness stand -- and without mention of a widely publicized confession he allegedly ma...
ST. CLOUD, Minn. - Testimony in Brian Fitch Sr.’s trial on charges he murdered a Mendota Heights police officer ended Thursday without the defendant taking the witness stand - and without mention of a widely publicized confession he allegedly made while hospitalized.
The case will go to the jury Monday after closing arguments.
Over six days of testimony that began last week, the prosecution called more than 50 witnesses. Defense attorneys called none, which is not uncommon in criminal cases.
The only evidence Fitch’s lawyers offered was audio from a bystander’s recording of the gunfire that broke out during his arrest.
Fitch, 40, is charged with first-degree murder in the fatal shooting of 47-year-old Scott Patrick during a traffic stop July 30 in West St. Paul.
He also is charged with three counts of attempted murder and a gun felony for allegedly firing on other officers who tracked him down in St. Paul later the same day.
Fitch has pleaded not guilty.
Thursday’s testimony focused on forensic evidence analyzed by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. McKenzie Anderson, a BCA forensic scientist, discussed DNA swabs taken from Fitch’s gun and car.
Swabs from the gun - a Smith & Wesson 9mm semiautomatic pistol found next to him in the Hyundai in which he was arrested - were a match for his DNA. Those results were unsurprising, given the weapon had Fitch’s blood on it.
Swabs from his car, the green Pontiac Grand Am that officer Patrick pulled over in West St. Paul just before he was shot, were less conclusive. The steering wheel, gear shift, turn signal and driver’s-door handle all contained a mixture of DNA from three or four people.
Fitch couldn’t be excluded from those mixes, but a dominant profile couldn’t be established from any of them, Anderson said.
“It would not be particularly surprising to find Mr. Fitch’s DNA in a vehicle that he was known to drive?” defense attorney Lauri Traub asked.
Anderson said it would not.
Traub used her cross-examination of Anderson to draw contrasts between the DNA testing and the firearms testing that linked Fitch’s gun to the bullets that killed Patrick. She noted that Anderson could show images from her analysis to jurors and let them draw their own conclusions; one of her chief criticisms of the gun-testing evidence is that that wasn’t possible.
Also testifying Thursday was Jennifer Kostroski, a BCA fingerprint examiner. Kostroski checked the gun for prints, as well as a map Fitch allegedly gave Claude Crockson, a fellow inmate in Oak Park Heights state prison.
The map showed the way to the home of Fitch’s ex-girlfriend, who testified in the case. Crockson said Fitch tried from prison to have her and another witness killed.
The gun had no usable prints, Kostroski said. The map had prints from Fitch’s left thumb and index finger. Much as she did with the gun evidence, Traub challenged those findings as subjective and susceptible to bias.
With state Department of Corrections investigator Jeff Dansky on the stand, prosecutors played video of Fitch apparently passing something under his cell door to Crockson. Prosecutors say that was the map in question.
The prosecution never presented testimony during the trial about an alleged confession to Patrick’s death. A police officer who was with Fitch in the hospital after his arrest claimed he said: “Just so you know, I hate cops and I’m guilty,” according to charging documents in the case.
That statement was widely repeated by the media and played a role in the trial being moved from Dakota County to St. Cloud. A survey commissioned by the defense found, among other things, that many prospective local jurors believed Fitch had already admitted to the killing.
Before the trial, Dakota County District Judge Mary Theisen reviewed Fitch’s medical records to see if they shed light on his whereabouts - and whether he was incapacitated or in surgery - when he reportedly made the statement. Theisen never formally suppressed it.
After resting their case, prosecutors recalled one witness, West St. Paul police officer Matt Swenke, to close a gap in the foundation for cell phone evidence that had already been introduced.
Although the defense objected to the maneuver, saying prosecutors had simply failed to properly present their case, the judge allowed it.
With the jury out of the room, Fitch waived his right to testify. Traub asked him a series of standard questions that come with the waiver, including whether he was happy with his lawyers.
“For sure,” he said.
The judge asked him if he wanted to take the stand.
“My decision would be not to testify,” Fitch said.
Theisen is considering a request by the defense to instruct the jury on lesser charges along with the attempted murder counts. Traub said the act of firing a gun - as Fitch is accused of doing during his arrest - also could be second-degree assault or reckless discharge of a firearm, especially if jurors don’t find he aimed at officers.
The defense is not seeking a lesser alternative to the first-degree murder charge. Unlike some murder cases, the charge does not require prosecutors to prove premeditation or intent; killing a police officer in Minnesota constitutes first-degree murder by definition.
If he is convicted of first-degree murder, the outcome of the other counts will have little practical effect. He would be sentenced automatically to life in prison without parole.
The trial was moved to the Stearns County courtroom in St. Cloud because of concerns that Fitch couldn’t get a fair jury in Dakota County.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner of Forum News Service.