HIBBING — The district judge presiding over the bench trial of Jerome Dionte Spann, the 32-year-old man charged with fatally shooting Jeryel McBeth and injuring Jamien Stuckey in Hibbing on Christmas 2018, began weighing evidence in the case on Monday without a written closing argument from the defense lawyers.
District Judge Rachel Sullivan announced in an order that the defense team, Elizabeth Polling and Hannah Forti, had “failed” to submit their argument on the court-approved deadline.
“As a result, the court concludes that the record is closed/complete and now under advisement,” she wrote.
Sullivan is expected to make a ruling by Sept. 20, court administrators told the Mesabi Tribune.
As of Monday, Spann remained in the St. Louis County Jail, where he has sat for nearly three years. He has been charged with premeditated first-degree murder, intentional second-degree murder and first-degree assault. He faces a life sentence without parole if convicted of the most serious offense.
The Mesabi Tribune reached out to the defense lawyers, but did not receive a response as of press time.
In her order, Sullivan summarized how she met with defense lawyers and prosecutors in June to set the bench trial for Aug. 23 to Sept. 1. She gave them one week for written closing submissions without objections.
At the end of the trial, Polling and Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Jessica Fralich asked the court for three weeks each to file their closing arguments. Sullivan rejected their requests. “This case has been pending for a very long time and everyone involved deserves a resolution in this,” she said in the courtroom at that time.
The judge scheduled out deadlines for the prosecutor on Sept. 1, followed by the defense lawyer on Sept. 8 and the state’s rebuttal on Sept. 13.
Fralich met her deadline, arguing that Spann had motive to kill McBeth in Hibbing. She opined that the evidence proved Spann was carrying a concealed weapon and “stalking” McBeth, before he shot him dead, and injured Stuckey that Christmas, after a quarrel the previous night. “The totality of the evidence shows beyond a reasonable doubt that Jerome Spann made the conscious decision to kill Jeryel McBeth by stopping to confront him, walking half a block to come within three or four feet of McBeth and by emptying a five-shot revolver and hitting McBeth three times,” she wrote in her argument. “Jerome Spann’s efforts to evade capture and conceal his location after the shooting are additional evidence of premeditation.”
On Sept. 7, one day before her due date, Polling asked for an extension of time to file her closing argument to Sept. 13, the judge wrote in her order. The court denied the request.
That same day, Polling asked for a hearing on the matter. The court granted a hearing for the following day, Sept. 8, but the defense lawyer did not show up. Instead she filed correspondence that morning, saying she was “requesting a continuance due to additions thereto and other necessary workload over the last 3 business days that have curtailed my ability to adequately complete a written argument,” the order reads. Forti appeared at the hearing to say the scheduling was “totally unanticipated” and the team needed more time. But Sullivan noted “the briefing deadline was not unanticipated as claimed by the counsel because the court previously advised the parties, far in advance of trial, of the court’s intention to set a limited briefing schedule at the close of evidence,” the order reads.
Sullivan extended the defense’s deadline to Sept. 9. But on that morning, Polling submitted a Notice of Intent to File Closing Argument, saying she intended to hand-in an argument “on or before Sept. 17,” the order reads.
Sullivan wrote in her latest order that she “finds that the briefing schedule of two-and-one-half weeks is not only adequate but reasonable and appropriate,” for a number of reasons.
First, closing arguments were submitted on time after a two-day bench trial in a third-degree criminal sexual conduct case. The Spann trial lasted about 13 hours, 45 minutes, the order reads. Second, the court told the defense lawyers about the scheduling well in advance. Third, the lawyers were given two weeks to begin work on its argument. Fourth, the state met its deadline within one week to the court.
And lastly, the “interests of justice require the court to bring this matter to a conclusion within reasonable timeframes,” the order reads. Spann has been in custody since Dec. 30, 2018.
Spann had pleaded not guilty to original charges before a grand jury indicted him last year on first-degree murder. In May, his defense lawyers waived his right to a jury trial and opted for a bench trial. Polling attempted to remove Sullivan from the case since her family had a social relationship with an agent from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension — their sons played on the same hockey team and were coached by the judge’s spouse and the agent. Chief Judge Michael Cuzzo denied the motion, citing a lack of evidence. The defense team’s “questioning of Judge Sullivan’s impartiality is speculative and not reasonable,” he wrote at the time.
Spann opted not to testify at his trial. In his defense, Polling questioned one witness, the Sixth District Public Defender investigator Charles Rachunek about a phone call he made to the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office. He testified to the office telling him Spann had never filed an application for a carry and concealed gun permit.
Polling then made a motion for the judge to render a directed verdict, arguing that the prosecutor had provided “circumstantial evidence” including unreliable witnesses. “The state has not provided sufficient evidence that identifies Mr. Spann in this case,” she said in the courtroom. The judge rejected the motion.
Fralich had called on numerous witnesses, including three who identified Spann as the shooter. Two of them told the court they gave Spann a ride that fatal night and saw him fire shots into a crowd of people standing outside of 2408 Third Ave. E. in Hibbing. Octavious Stuckey testified he saw the man shoot his uncle, McBeth, and his two brothers, Jamien and Timothy Stuckey.