Minn. Supreme Court to hear beheading case
ST. PAUL—A Grand Rapids man's murder conviction and lifetime prison sentence should be reversed because his case was built on the unreliable testimony of an accomplice and other witnesses who were under the influence of drugs.
That's the argument an attorney made to the Minnesota Supreme Court on behalf of 37-year-old Joseph Christen Thoresen, who is serving life without parole in the stabbing and beheading death of 20-year-old David Alexander Haiman of Hibbing.
An Itasca County jury last August convicted Thoresen of premeditated first-degree murder, concluding that he lured Haiman out to a rural road in the Ball Club area and attacked him with a variety of weapons. Thoresen's former girlfriend, Kayleene Danielle Greniger, who admitted using a machete to decapitate the victim, was a key witness at the trial, testifying that Thoresen planned the slaying in advance and was the main aggressor in the fatal assault.
Thoresen is now incarcerated at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Oak Park Heights. His final hope to secure a release from prison is the state's high court, which will hear oral arguments in his case Sept. 10.
"Accomplice testimony is inherently suspect, and must be adequately corroborated," appellate public defender Rachel Bond wrote in a 40-page memorandum seeking a reversal of the conviction and a new trial. "Here, the state's evidence of premeditation came from an untrustworthy accomplice who had given prior false statements about her role in the killing not just to police, but also under oath to a grand jury."
The Minnesota Attorney General's Office disputed the contention, asking the court to uphold the jury's verdict.
"Simply, the issue is whether the evidence as a whole supported the truth of Kayleene Greniger's testimony and pointed to appellant's guilt," Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank wrote in a 41-page response. "There was more than adequate evidence supporting the truth of Kayleene Greniger's testimony and tending to (Thoresen's) guilt."
In Minnesota, premeditated first-degree murder carries an automatic life sentence with no opportunity for parole. Appeals go directly to the Supreme Court.
Greniger, who pleaded guilty to intentional second-degree murder and was sentenced to more than 30 years in prison, testified at Thoresen's trial that he planned the killing and served as the main aggressor.
Greniger told jurors she had previously been sexually assaulted by both men, and that on the day of Haiman's killing, Thoresen had tied him up in the bedroom of their Grand Rapids apartment. She said that Thoresen repeatedly punched him and left him on the ground for hours while they left the apartment.
They later retrieved Haiman and began driving around in the victim's car, she said, smoking methamphetamine and visiting acquaintances. At one point, she said, Thoresen privately told her they were going to kill Haiman.
She said Thoresen eventually stopped along the rural forestry road and got Haiman out of the car, quickly striking him over the head with a baseball bat. She testified that Haiman dropped to the ground and was again hit with the bat before both of them started stabbing the victim. Greniger admitted using the machete to decapitate him.
Thoresen's defense attorneys aggressively attacked her testimony on cross-examination and in closing arguments, contending that Greniger was the main aggressor and calling her "conniving, calculated and a killer."
The jury took about three hours to convict Thoresen of premeditated first-degree murder and first-degree murder while committing assault, acquitting him on two lesser counts of second-degree murder.
Bond noted in her brief that Greniger's account at Thoresen's trial differed significantly from her initial statements to law enforcement and before a grand jury, at which points she denied any involvement and claimed that her then-boyfriend alone killed Haiman in retaliation for the alleged sexual assault.
The attorney said Minnesota law recognizes a "'long-standing mistrust of the testimony of the accomplice."
But Frank noted that jurors were specifically advised by the judge that accomplice testimony must be corroborated, and that testimony of other witnesses, forensic evidence and Thoresen's own words helped confirm Greniger's account.
"Kayleene Greniger told a credible account of what actually happened," Frank wrote. "As horrible a story as it was, it was believable because she admitted her own involvement in the horrific murder of David Haiman and because of all of the corroborative evidence."
Bond's brief further contends that the judge erred by rejecting Thoresen's request to give the jury a specific instruction about the credibility of other witnesses who were under the influence of methamphetamine at the time of the events and, in the case of one witness, was charged with aiding an offender for helping destroy evidence after the fact.
Frank, however, wrote that the rejection was proper because the district court has "considerable latitude in the selection of language for jury instructions," and the Supreme Court has held that it "disfavors jury instructions on particular kinds of evidence."
The Supreme Court does not have a deadline for issuing its opinion, but decisions typically take several months.