Under Color of Law

A racially charged ethics case travels all the way from Anoka County to the state supreme court

It was already one of the stranger cases Kelly Madden had handled as an Anoka County public defender. Her client, a black man named William Manuel, had been accused of aggravated robbery after a white couple had written him a $15 check. But the document that crossed Madden's desk the morning of April 10 was even stranger than charging an alleged panhandler with a felony that could land him in prison for more than three years.

The assistant county attorney prosecuting Madden's client had filed a motion asking that Madden not be allowed to suggest at trial that the case was tainted with racial bias. Worse, the motion also asked the court to bar Madden from having an African-American lawyer help her defend Manuel, a move the prosecutor feared would manipulate the jury. The first request irritated Madden, who believed racial issues permeated the case. The second she interpreted as an attempt to bar Manuel from his constitutionally guaranteed right to be defended by the attorney of his choice.

Several days later Madden got an apology from the attorney who had filed the motion. She accepted it; still, she figured, something more had to be done to underscore her concern that racism permeates the judicial system. So she filed an ethics complaint with the state agency that oversees attorney conduct.

Public defenders Mike Holland and Kelly Madden teamed up on the complaint against four county prosecutors
Craig Lassig
Public defenders Mike Holland and Kelly Madden teamed up on the complaint against four county prosecutors

That petition sparked one of the more unusual and controversial ethics debates to play out in Minnesota in years. The case that made it all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court and recently resulted in an unprecedented decision to publicly chastise an Anoka County prosecutor--without publicly mentioning her name.

"We've dealt with these situations in the past. It might not happen every year, but if it happens every other year it's still too often. And if it happens more than twice a decade, it needs to be addressed," says state representative Andy Dawkins (DFL-St. Paul), a member of the state supreme court's Task Force on Racial Bias in the Judicial System. "I don't know whether individuals' names necessarily need to be a part of it, but people need to know that this still goes on in 1999."

According to court documents, the case began on the evening of October 21, 1997, when William Manuel approached Markyda Hall and Shawn Venrooy in the parking lot of the Timber Lodge Steakhouse in Spring Lake Park. He needed money, he explained, or at least a ride. When Venrooy said something about calling the police, Manuel became angry and, according to the complaint, reached "behind his back...as though he was reaching for a weapon." Frightened, Hall wrote Manuel a check for $15.

At that, all three went inside the restaurant. Hall headed for the restroom while Manuel attempted to cash the check. By the time Hall came out, Manuel was gone. She and Venrooy told restaurant workers they had been robbed, then sat down and ordered dinner. Afterward, they went home, called Hall's parents in Texas, then phoned the police and said they weren't sure but they thought they had been robbed.

The police, however, seemed less uncertain about the matter: The next day they got a tip that their suspect was at a local sports bar. According to Manuel's attorneys four Spring Lake Park officers, including the chief, showed up along with backup from four neighboring municipalities. They took the African American man--whose name didn't match the one on Hall's check--into custody, and checked his alibi. After viewing a lineup, Hall and Venrooy told police that they had the wrong man; he was released without being charged. Manuel was arrested two months later, on December 23, and charged with aggravated robbery. He spent Christmas in jail before being released on $1,000 bail. His case was then assigned to Madden.

Madden says the apparently arbitrary questioning of another black "suspect," the number of police officers who showed up to help detain him, and the unusually harsh charges filed against her client, all led to her conclusion that the accusations against Manuel were rife with racial overtones. She shared her conclusions with Karen Walden, the assistant Anoka County attorney who had charged Manuel, and told her that she had asked Mike Holland, a Hennepin County public defender who was African-American, to help her with Manuel's case.

Walden, who was due to go on maternity leave, placed a memo about the exchange in her file on the case. According to Madden's supervisor, who later saw the note, Walden wrote that Madden "claims some racial issues in the case and I don't see any....Kelly plans on having a 'token' African-American attorney sit with her during the trial. I am appalled. I think something should be done about this, like filing a motion." The case was scheduled to go to trial on April 27, 1998.

On April 8 Nancy Jones Norman, the attorney filling in for Walden, filed a motion asking that Madden be barred by the court from making "any inquiry into or comments to the jury regarding any contention that the victim's identification of the defendant or law enforcement's apprehension of the defendant was motivated by a racial bias without an offer of proof in that regard." She also asked that Madden be prohibited from having "a person of color as co-counsel for the sole purpose of playing upon the emotions of the jury."

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