Minneapolis' New Top Prosecutor Sparks Hope of Reopening Case on Police Killing of Terrance Franklin

Mary Moriarty at her offices in Minneapolis, on Oct. 25, 2019.
Mary Moriarty at her offices in Minneapolis, on Oct. 25, 2019.

Mary Moriarty at her public defender's offices in Minneapolis, on Oct. 25, 2019. Credit - John Minchillo—AP

Last month, in the weeks leading up to the third anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, the Minneapolis City Council voted to settle two additional lawsuits brought by other Black people whom former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on. The largest payout, $7.5 million, went to John Pope, who was 14 and in his bedroom in 2017 when Chauvin pressed his knee on the boy’s back and neck for 15 minutes. A magistrate took the unusual step of ordering the body camera footage made public, calling it a “premonition of the same force later used” on Floyd.

The footage also showcased the troubling command culture of the Minneapolis Police Department. After Chauvin has had his knee on Pope for more than 10 minutes, his sergeant walks in, sees what’s happening, appears to ask if Chauvin needs a break, nods, and walks out.

The sergeant, Lucas Peterson, by then had already caused the death of a Black suspect in a choke hold, and filed a false report in another case, claiming a Black woman had assaulted his partner. He was also one of two officers who, four years earlier, had shot and killed a 22-year-old Black man named Terrance Franklin.

Read more: Minneapolis Police Were Cleared in the Killing of Terrance Franklin. Franklin’s Family Says a Video Proves He Was Executed—and Now the Case May Be Reopened

But if the Franklin case escaped scrutiny at the time, many things changed after Chauvin killed Floyd. This past November, voters in Hennepin County, Minn., elected a chief prosecutor, Mary Moriarty, who campaigned on a promise of prosecuting police, and, local police chiefs tell TIME, specifically called out Franklin’s death.

“I remember the one name that she brought up was Terrance Franklin,” recalls Stephanie Revering, police chief in suburban Crystal, Minn., which hosted a meeting of the Hennepin County Chiefs of Police Association a week before the election. “She said it did not get the investigation it deserved. She would reopen that one.”

Mary Moriarty at her chief public defender's offices in Minneapolis, on Oct. 25, 2019.<span class="copyright">John Minchillo—AP</span>
Mary Moriarty at her chief public defender's offices in Minneapolis, on Oct. 25, 2019.John Minchillo—AP

“I do remember Mary raising some eyebrows, that she said something to the effect of, that would be one specific case that she would look into,” says Daniel Wills, the Rogers, Minn., chief who now heads the association. “The Terrance Franklin case, from the limited details I know, certainly has some loose ends associated with it.”

It does. The May 10, 2013, shooting predated both body-worn cameras and smartphone video, and for years the public knew only the narrative generated by the police. The details of that narrative would evolve (initially, the Minneapolis chief at the time claimed that Franklin was killed after he attacked a police dog), but it was always the story of heroic cops facing a young Black man who displayed the chilling manner of an automaton—blank stare, impervious to pain—and the action-movie chops of Tom Cruise.

In the account the five officers involved provided (after being allowed to meet together), Franklin overpowers four SWAT officers and a German Shepard, then wounds two of the officers by, in a single motion, knocking back a pair of them and tackling a third—while simultaneously taking control of the submachine gun strapped to that third cop, getting his own finger inside the trigger guard and pulling once, then again, all while falling to the ground with the officer still wearing the machine gun, in a tiny basement, in the dark. Only then, police maintained, was the burglary suspect shot to death.

But Franklin’s family unearthed evidence they say supports their belief that the death of “Mookie,” as he was known, was an execution. Franklin was shot five times in the head. A ballistics report indicated that two officers had held their guns to his head side by side and fired simultaneously. Audio captured by a passerby—and never closely examined by either police or prosecutors—directly contradicted the officers’ contention that the shooting was in self-defense. Among the shouts audible on the tape: “Come out little n—-r! Don’t go putting those hands up now!”

“Those officers need to get time,” says Walter Franklin, Terrance’s father, speaking to TIME on May 11. “I’ve heard it’s moving, but it’s moving slow. Yesterday makes ten years.” He said the family’s attorney, Mike Padden, had met recently with Moriarty. A spokesman for Moriarty would not comment on the status of the case. Padden was circumspect.

“All I can say is that we’re hopeful that the five officers will be prosecuted,” he tells TIME. “And I am reasonably confident that they will be prosecuted.” He refused to elaborate.

Sea Change

The question is now a criminal one. On the eve of trial for the family’s wrongful death civil suit—which the city had asked the U.S. Supreme Court to prevent—the Minneapolis city council voted in February 2020 to settle, paying $795,000. The council president at the time said, “I think our policy changes in the police department, leadership changes, have really created a scenario where this is unlikely to happen again.”

Three months later, Chauvin killed Floyd—profoundly altering, among other things, public assumptions about police credibility. “These are people that had the expectation up until four, five years ago that any goddamn thing they said would be believed by a jury,” says Robert Bennett, who represented John Pope, the teen held down by Chauvin, and specializes in police brutality cases. “That’s done. I’ve had federal judges tell me that. I’ve had FBI agents tell me that.”

Peterson’s career reflects that change. At the time of Franklin’s death, he had been the subject of 13 excessive force complaints, and cost $700,000 in settlements, more than any other officer in the previous seven years, the Star Tribune reported. But he was regarded as a “great performer” by a former Chief of Police quoted by the paper, and after Franklin’s death he made sergeant.

Read more: Prosecutors Vowed to Revisit the Police Killing of Terrance Franklin. Nearly a Year Later, Little Progress Is Visible

Today Peterson is no longer employed by the Minneapolis Police, according to Joseph E. Flynn, his attorney in the Pope case. The circumstances of his departure are not public, and Bennett indicated to TIME that the prospect of them becoming so during legal proceedings was part of the reason the city settled. “That’s how you get seven and a half million dollars,” he said.

The agency is under intense pressure. Though Minneapolis voters in 2021 turned away a vaguely worded proposal to replace the police department, a U.S. Department of Justice probe of “unlawful policing” was announced the day after Chauvin’s conviction. Many believe it will end with the kind of court-enforced consent decree the MPD is already under with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, following its 2022 report concluding it engaged in discriminatory policing. Meanwhile, the city hired a new police chief with a remit to restore trust in the department while also addressing a surge in violent crime. Brian O’Hara, who arrived from Newark, N.J. in November, has moved to replace problematic supervisors.

Moriarty, a longtime public defender, rode the wave of revulsion into the prosecutor’s office. She succeeded Mike Freeman, the prosecutor who originally cleared the five officers present at Franklin’s 2013 death, and who eight years later vowed to revisit the case, after a TIME investigation surfaced untruths and contradictions in the police account. But though his office was reported to be in negotiations with at least two officers seeking immunity in exchange for testimony about the shooting, Freeman left office without taking action.

Moriarty had long been critical of Freeman for his handling of police shootings, and won handily over a strong candidate, Barbara Holton Dimick, a Black former judge and prosecutor who emphasized rising crime. Moriarty’s first five months in office have been rocky. But Rachel Moran, a St. Thomas University School of Law associate professor who specializes in police accountability, noted that the biggest controversy—over the new prosecutor’s decision to reduce the penalty facing a pair of underage murder suspects, citing, among other things, studies of brain development—was in line with the principles she ran on.

“I have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes, but I think her position so far has been essentially Mary living out the things that she campaigned on,” Moran says. “If I had to guess, she’s got people looking into it [the Franklin case], but she knows she really, really wants to have her ducks in a row.”

“That’d be amazing if she does this,” says Ashley Martin, who earlier this month marked the 10th anniversary of Terrance’s death with their son, Nehemiah, by releasing balloons in a park. “I’m really worried about the outcome.”

They will return to the park with balloons again on May 30, Terrance’s birthday. He would have been 33.