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Attorney for Winston Smith's family calls for independent investigation into his killing

Minneapolis Star Tribune logo Minneapolis Star Tribune 10/15/2021 Maya Rao, Star Tribune
Kidale Smith, brother of Winston Smith, holds a Justice for Winston Smith poster during a press conference in Minneapolis in June. © Aaron Lavinsky/20064483C/TNS Kidale Smith, brother of Winston Smith, holds a Justice for Winston Smith poster during a press conference in Minneapolis in June.

MINNEAPOLIS — An attorney for the family of Winston Smith on Friday called for an independent investigation into his killing by a U.S. Marshals Service task force, pointing out that officers at the scene were never interviewed as part the state's investigation into the case.

The officers submitted only written statements giving their accounts of the June 3 shooting to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the attorney said, claiming the state's investigation was flawed. Those statements helped provide the basis of Crow Wing County Attorney Donald Ryan's decision this month not to criminally charge the officers for Smith's death.

A state Department of Public Safety spokesman said in an email Friday that the BCA investigates use-of-force incidents in Minnesota because of "our thorough and professional approach to ensuring the integrity of an investigation" and cited information gathered in the case including more than 1,300 photos and approximately 2,000 pages.

"Because this is a criminal investigation, officers have the same Constitutional rights as any other citizen," communications director Bruce Gordon wrote. "That means that all interviews conducted by the BCA are voluntary; the BCA cannot compel any officer to submit to an interview."

Members of Smith's family and activists said they remain unconvinced that the state has fully investigated the matter.

"The investigation in this case was severely flawed from the very beginning," attorney Eric Newmark told reporters at a news conference at the Hennepin County Courthouse.

Members of the North Star Fugitive Task Force shot Smith to death in his car in a parking garage in Minneapolis while they were trying to arrest him on a felony warrant. Smith had missed a sentencing court date after pleading guilty to illegal possession of a firearm. Officers were not wearing body cameras, and no other footage of the confrontation has publicly emerged.

Gordon said the BCA's investigative file should be available early next week.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman released a letter from Ryan on Monday explaining his decision, including a detailed narrative that drew on the officers' accounts of what happened. One officer said he saw Smith draw a gun, and the officer repeatedly yelled "gun" and began firing. A second officer said he fired upon hearing the first officer's shouts about the weapon. Ryan wrote that after the shooting investigators found cartridge casings, a gun and defects in the car that indicated Smith fired from inside, but the prosecutor never established who shot first.

Newmark said he learned that the BCA did not interview the officers during a meeting that lawyers and the Smith family had with Ryan on Monday afternoon, as the charging decision became public.

According to Newmark, an attorney for an officer at the scene said that if a grand jury was called, his client would invoke his Fifth Amendment right against testifying on the grounds that it would incriminate him.

"They all provided written statements with time to consult with their attorneys, with time to consult with their colleagues. Is that transparency?" Newmark said.

He added that the authorities have still not released the names of the officers who shot Smith, calling it "astonishing" and "disgraceful." Gordon said the BCA is prohibited from releasing the identities of officers working undercover.

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