The Trials of David Lillehaug

In the wake of Najarian and Shabazz, the U.S. attorney and former DFL prodigy finds his once-bright political future in question.

The case was originally brought to Hennepin County District Court, where county attorney Mike Freeman asked for $1 million bail; eventually, Lillehaug assigned his highest-ranking lawyer to bring it in federal court, using one of Congress's recent enhancers for "armed career criminals." After a six-day trial, Willis was convicted and sentenced to 27 years in prison. Later, Lillehaug was quoted in the Christian Science Monitor as saying he was "absolutely baffled" that someone with a prior murder conviction had ever been "perceived by some as a legitimate community leader."

§ The Shotgun Crips. Just a few weeks before the gas station incident, Lillehaug held a press conference announcing the indictment of 11 people for allegedly conspiring across state lines to assassinate local Vice Lords leaders. Here, too, federal prosecutors used some of the weapons recently handed them by Congress; and again, Lillehaug said his office was at the forefront of "ending the cycle of violence in Minneapolis."

Conspiracy-to-murder charges had rarely, if ever, been brought in Minnesota, and lawyers who worked the case say the U.S. attorney's office played as hard as it could despite the fact that no one was killed. "With the feds, you get the same sentence for a conspiracy or an attempted offense as you do for the completed offense," says Demetrius Clemons, who represented one of the defendants. "And they never even made any [plea-bargain] offers. Two of those guys got life-plus. And these were people with no priors."

§ Alisa Clemons. An MPD sergeant who had gotten into police work after watching a cop beat up her brother, Clemons was among the targets of racist hate letters that circulated in the department in 1992. An internal investigation fingered her as the author of the letters, and last year Lillehaug's office brought the case to a federal grand jury. There was never an indictment--a telling fact, says Damon Schramm, who represented Clemons. "Among criminal defense lawyers, it's commonly said that a prosecutor who can get an indictment from a grand jury can get a ham sandwich," Schramm notes, because grand juries only hear the government's case. "But on this one, I was struck by the lack of thoroughness in the investigation. When I finally met with the [assistant] U.S. attorney, I had quite a bit of exculpatory information that they did not seem to be aware of." Despite the lack of an indictment, the MPD fired Clemons, then eight months pregnant, last August. An arbitration hearing on her case is scheduled for next week; she is also preparing to file a civil suit.

Lillehaug defends his record on each of the cases, bristling at the suggestion that his office has singled out black defendants: "It is not a priority of this office to prosecute anyone on the basis of race." For that matter, even his harshest critics lay much of the blame for disparate treatment at the door of the federal justice system as a whole. What Lillehaug hasn't done, they say, is to live up to his pledge to "[understand] crime in its fullest context"; a lot of people took that to mean that he would buck the tide on things like the war on drugs. But, says Gray, it didn't turn out that way. "It's so ironic--here's this great liberal Democrat, and yet everyone they bring in front of a judge over there is a crack case, a black crack case. And they take great delight in mounting the time for black defendants."

(A footnote here: In 1994, the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Commission recommended equalizing penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses. But, barely days before those guidelines would have gone into effect, Congress passed legislation maintaining the current standard by which freebasers get up to 100 times stiffer penalties than those who put the product up their nose. Not long after that law passed, Gray made a motion for an "equalized" sentence in a crack case in federal court; Lillehaug's lawyer successfully argued against it.)

Crack laws--which "you probably could write eight or 10 articles about"--aside, Lillehaug says his office emphasizes "all the important narcotics," including substances favored by white users: A few months after taking office, he brought charges against an alleged crystal-meth ring based in the rural Minnesota hamlet of Cosmos. That kind of large-scale conspiracy case is what he's directed his lawyers and investigatory agencies to pursue, he says; he's also put a priority on offenses involving both guns and narcotics (which, of course, most do). Local prosecutors and public defenders say that compared to U.S. attorneys in other states, Lillehaug has left most run-of-the-mill crime to the state courts; he's also not gone after a lot of homicide cases, a significant point because of his opinions on the death penalty. In the one federal murder case so far that could have led to an execution, Lillehaug apparently recommended that the Department of Justice not seek it.

Lillehaug has emphasized a few other areas with potential political ramifications. Crimes on reservations are one; in one of his most high-profile moves so far he indicted state Sen. Harold Skip Finn, a Leech Lake tribal member, and several officials of the White Earth Band, in separate cases involving financial and electoral fraud. Leech Lake lobbyist Larry Kitto says the indictments flagrantly disregard tribal sovereignty, and likens Lillehaug to George Custer; dissidents on both reservations, by contrast, laud the prosecutions as something they've long asked for. Finn's trial began Monday.

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