Judge says Scott County attorney suppressed evidence in wrestling coach sex assault case

Judge tells prosecutors to ‘do better’ and make ‘swift change’ to address Brady issue

By: - August 4, 2022 9:06 am

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A district judge recently ordered the Scott County Attorney’s Office to “do better” and make “swift and positive change” after finding the office suppressed evidence that was favorable to a former Eden Prairie wrestling coach charged with sexually assaulting a girl on his team.

Mustafa Shabazz, 45, was acquitted of assaulting that 11-year-old Shakopee girl.

The Shakopee case began in February 2020, when the mother of an 11-year-old girl reported to police that her daughter told her Shabazz inappropriately touched her under the guise of hugging. 

During the investigation, another allegation in Eden Prairie came to light, and sexual assault charges were also filed against Shabazz in Hennepin County. Shabazz was acquitted in Hennepin County in June, and acquitted in Scott County in July.

Before the Shakopee case went to trial, Scott County District Judge Christian Wilton found the Scott County Attorney’s Office failed to disclose three videos related to the case.

After a jury had been selected to hear the case in April, Shabazz’s attorney raised a “Brady motion,” asserting the prosecution failed to turn over video evidence that could be favorable to the defense. This is called Brady material, a reference to a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case called Brady v. Maryland.

The defense attorney knew it existed, because it had been turned over in the Hennepin County case, during which the same attorney represented Shabazz.

Hennepin County prosecutors have been dinged by state investigators for failing to release Brady material on police officers with credibility issues, but in this case, the Hennepin County prosecutors turned over the videos, but Scott County prosecutors didn’t, according to court documents.

The prosecutor, Debra Lund, suggested the snafu was related to her legal assistant going on leave.

After hearing arguments on the motion, Wilton sent the jurors home and postponed the trial for a month.

That night, prosecutors turned over five videos to the defense. 

One of the body camera videos showed the girl’s first conversation with a Shakopee police officer. It showed the girl’s mother asking what defense attorneys contend were leading questions, and an officer unable to properly question the girl. 

The video was relevant to the defense’s contention that the sexual assault allegation was manufactured based on “parent and coach politics.”

Judge Wilton said some of the videos were favorable to the defense, and “highly material” to the case. Wilton wrote that the video of the girl’s first statement to police showed the mother crying, discussing her own feelings, speaking on behalf of the child and asking questions that “could be construed as leading.”

Wilton said the video was favorable to the defendant’s case, and “functionally necessary to any potential success” given the trial would turn on witness testimony, not physical evidence.

Another video taken in the officer’s squad car showed the officer talking to her supervisor about the nature of her interview with the girl. Wilton said the video filled a “critical gap” in events and was crucial to the defense’s plan to focus on the quality of the investigation and how it may have influenced the girl’s allegations.

The video would help jurors assess the police officer’s credibility if she testified, Wilton said.

Without the video, the defense would have had to prepare for trial using only a paper police report summarizing the girl’s statement, rather than her actual videotaped statement — “the difference between which might be likened to the difference between Kansas and Oz,” Wilton wrote.

“The first is flat, one-sided, and summary; the second rich, raw, and authentic,” he wrote.

Wilton found that had the defense gone to trial without the bodycam, a guilty verdict wouldn’t have been “worthy of confidence.”

Prosecutors told the judge they didn’t have any of the videos until the morning of the trial.

The judge didn’t buy it, saying that at a minimum, the police officer and her colleagues knew about the videos. And the Supreme Court has ruled that prosecutors are responsible for knowing about all evidence in police possession.

“Ostrich pleas will not fly here,” Wilton wrote.

Scott County Attorney Ron Hocevar, who is running for reelection against Allen Andersen, didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

The defense filed its discovery demand in December 2020, and it took the prosecution 476 days to disclose the videos. By then, 45 Scott County citizens had reported for jury duty to be considered for the trial. 

When the prosecutors’ failure to disclose the videos came to light the next morning, the judge was forced to dismiss those jurors — wasting their time and the court’s resources, Wilton said.

“These people took time out of their lives to show up at the courthouse, attend juror orientation, and participate in a day’s worth of voir dire,” Wilton wrote. “During jury selection, the court and the parties required several of these individuals to disclose, in open court, intimate details of their private lives.”

“Such waste is egregious and wholly unacceptable,” Wilton wrote. “The Scott County Attorney’s Office needs to do better: This order serves as the court’s formal notice that it expects swift and positive change.”

Constitutional violations cannot be excused because a legal assistant goes on leave in the middle of a case, he wrote, or because a lawyer delegated certain tasks to support staff, or because a prosecutor failed to communicate with her lead investigator to inventory evidence. 

And, prosecutors shouldn’t tolerate “obviously problematic” evidence-sharing from law enforcement, or wait for something bad to happen before instituting procedural guardrails, Wilton wrote.

Wilton allowed the incident may have been a momentary oversight or a single officer’s misconduct, but he urged the entire office to make “every change necessary” to comply with “all relevant ethical and constitutional obligations.”

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.