Kawaskii Blanche says he came across information about his case while researching in the prison law library. Photo by Deena Winter/Minnesota Reformer
STILLWATER — On the evening of June 2, 1996, Byron Phillips, 11, was playing on a porch in north Minneapolis with his cousin and a friend when gunfire broke out.
Police said a gang member shot at a 17-year-old rival gang member, Corey J. Scott, who was walking down Newton Avenue. But the bullet missed him and hit Phillips in the chest, ripping through most of his vital organs, killing him.
Police said it was the culmination of a weeks-long gang feud.
Nearly 24 years after being convicted of murder for the shooting, Kawaskii Blanche, 49, says Hennepin County prosecutors did not disclose to his attorney a three-hour interrogation with Scott about two months after the shooting, which he argues is a violation of constitutional rights and grounds for a new trial. He has long maintained his innocence.
“I wasn’t nowhere near it,” said Blanche, who is being held in the Stillwater prison.
Last summer, Blanche was researching his case in the prison law library when he stumbled upon portions of Scott’s August 1996 police interview. He noticed a major discrepancy between what Scott told police about the Phillips case and what prosecutors said during Blanche’s trial: Scott said he saw a gray Cavalier at the scene; prosecutors said Blanche fired the gun from a red Maxima owned by the mother of his friend, Montay A. Bernard, who was also convicted in the shooting.
The transcript of Scott’s police interview shows detectives tried to get Scott to say he saw a red car speed at the scene, but Scott did not waver. In a later police interview, Scott named another person — neither Blanche nor Bernard — as the shooter.
But Scott wasn’t called to testify during the trial, and prosecutors stuck to their version for the jury: Blanche fired the gun from a red Maxima.
Blanche’s current attorney, Stephen Grigsby, said Minneapolis detectives “could connect my client to a red car, but not the gray car.” Last year, a district judge refused to grant Blanche a hearing on his discovery of the interrogation transcript, which Grigsby alleges is a Brady violation, named after the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court precedent Brady v. Maryland that prosecutors must turn over evidence that’s favorable to defendants. Like an eyewitness telling police the shooter was in a gray Cavalier, not a red Maxima.
Grigsby asked the state Supreme Court to reverse the lower court ruling. The court could rule on the case any day now.
The Office of the Hennepin County Attorney has faced renewed scrutiny on Brady issues after a state Department of Human Rights report released in April said the county’s prosecutors routinely fail to turn over Brady material. The report found “systemic failure” in the way Minneapolis police misconduct is shared with prosecutors.
In the face of criticism over the alleged constitutional violations, former Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman circulated a memo laying out a new policy for how prosecutors should turn over Brady material. Defense lawyers said his policy had glaring holes — one of them being its silence on reviewing or rectifying past Brady violations.
Prosecutors say the interview wasn’t material to the case
In a court filing, Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Anna Light argued that Scott’s interview wasn’t suppressed, nor was it material to the case. She said “it appears” prosecutors disclosed the videotaped interview of Scott because an MPD property inventory form shows the videotape was released to the county attorney for discovery purposes in February 1997.
But even if the videotape or interview transcript weren’t disclosed to the defense, the substance of it was disclosed in police summaries of the interview turned over in September and November 1996, and they mentioned Scott’s description of a gray car, Light said.
Light also argued conflicting descriptions of the car don’t prove Blanche is innocent, and the fact that Blanche discovered the discrepancy shows his lawyer should have been able to find it within the two-year deadline to petition for post-conviction relief.
That argument, Grigsby wrote in response, would put “an untenable burden on defendants: to be hampered in the first instance by the state’s malfeasance under Brady and then risk waiving the rectification of the wrong, by not compulsively scouring the universe for something of which they could not have had even an intuition to begin searching.”
Grigsby said prosecutors should have turned over Scott’s full statement, not summaries that “don’t convey the certainty that (Scott) had that it was not a red car” nor “the bias of the police and their desperation to try to bully this 17-year-old kid into providing evidence he simply was unwilling to provide either because it wasn’t true or for some other reason.”
After discovering the discrepancy between prosecutors’ and Scott’s description of the shooter’s car, Blanche filed his petition for post-conviction relief in March 2022, alleging prosecutors committed a Brady violation.
The judge, Thomas Conley, denied his request in July, saying 2007 was the deadline for filing the petition, and said Scott’s interview could have been discovered “by the exercise of due diligence” within the two-year deadline.
Blanche’s attorney argues the deadline is moot because of the Brady violation.
Conley also ruled that the prosecutor didn’t commit a Brady violation, because the substance of the interview — and the fact that Scott said he saw a gray Cavalier, not a red Maxima — was disclosed in other interviews with Scott that were turned over.
Even if the prosecution failed to disclose the Scott interview to the defense, it’s not material, Conley ruled, because there’s not a reasonable probability that it would have changed the outcome of the trial.
Grigsby argues the judge should have held a hearing — with witnesses testifying under oath — and listened to the Scott interview so he could compare it with the police summaries.
“The danger here is that they will say ‘We don’t really have to abide by Brady as long as the defense receives some prosecutorially edited version of that statement,’” Grigsby said. “That somehow all of that can be ignored as long as you have a set of bullet points approved by Mike Freeman.”
Freeman led the office from 1991 to 1999 and again from 2007 through last year.
“In other words, Mike Freeman’s position is: We decide how much of the actual evidence you get to see,” Grigsby said.
Freeman has since retired, but the new Hennepin County attorney, Mary Moriarty, released a statement to the Reformer saying, “The public must have confidence that defendants are receiving a fair trial. That’s what Brady is about. We are in the process of reviewing the office’s policy and processes related to Brady issues to ensure we are fulfilling our legal obligations.”
But, she added, “In this particular case, we agree with the district court’s order that determined the office had turned over the information in a variety of different ways and that there was no violation of Brady.”
No physical evidence at trial
In addition to the potential Brady issue, the case is filled with other details that might give a jury pause when asked if prosecutors had proven Blanche’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
At the time of Phillips’ murder, the Twin Cities was going through the high-crime “Murderapolis” years, when the press, politicians and public demanded quick justice for an innocent victim like Phillips. Police and prosecutors were under immense pressure to score convictions and willing to make deals with less-than-credible witnesses and ignore contrary evidence. Public defenders were overwhelmed.
Prosecutors did not to call the key eyewitness, the intended target, Scott. Neither did defense attorneys, even though at one point in his multiple police interviews, Scott identified a shooter other than Blanche.
No physical evidence linked Blanche to the crime.
Phillips’ cousin and friend gave differing descriptions of the car, and the person driving the car, and how many people were in it. The cousin said the shots came from a blue car with rust spots; the friend said it was a red car with rust spots. The boys were never asked to identify suspects or vehicles in a photo lineup.
About a year after the shooting, the investigation had stalled, so the community put up a billboard in north Minneapolis with a photo of Phillips and some powerful words: “You know who killed me. Why won’t you help?”
Vanessa Gaines saw the billboard, and came forward with a tip: She said on the night of the killing, she saw her nephew Duan Gaines, a Bogus Boyz member, talking to Blanche and Bernard in her home. Gaines said she overheard Blanche mention a shootout and say he believed a little boy had been hit because he saw a boy fall to the ground. Later that evening, she saw on the news that a little boy had been killed in a Northside shootout.
Duan Gaines corroborated Vanessa Gaines’ story for a grand jury, but then recanted during the trial, saying he was under a lot of pressure and knew he could clear up some criminal charges if he corroborated his aunt’s story.
Before Vanessa Gaines’ nephew took the stand, a police officer encouraged her to write a letter to him in jail to make sure their stories matched, according to a 2020 Associated Press story.
During the trial, Gaines acknowledged she had numerous criminal convictions — she’d been convicted of 10 thefts, making a false report to police, attempted burglary, giving police a false name and felony thefts — and received a $3,700 reward for the tip, but denied that was her motivation for going to police.
That same year, Blanche’s alleged fellow gang member Robert Williams (who was incarcerated by then) implicated Blanche and Bernard in the murder. Williams testified that Blanche and a friend were driving in north Minneapolis when they saw Blanche’s friends shooting at Scott.
Williams also testified that he’d seen Blanche with the 9-mm handgun the day before the killing, and that it was Blanche’s idea to go looking for Scott.
Bernard did not return a phone call seeking comment.
In return for his testimony, Williams was granted immunity from prosecution for the shooting and conspiracy to kill Scott — avoiding a life sentence.
After getting information from Gaines and Williams, police arrested Blanche in 1997. The prosecutor acknowledged during the trial that they made deals — took “extraordinary measures,” he called it — with a number of people in order to get information in the case.
Blanche’s attorney, Grigsby, was a law clerk for the public defender’s office when Phillips was killed. When now-Sen. Amy Klobuchar was elected Hennepin County attorney in November 1998, she became accountable to the public for a “situation in crisis,” Grigsby said.
Blanche was indicted in June 1998. In 1999, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison; the earliest he could possibly be paroled is 2040.
His co-defendant, Montay Bernard, was also convicted of conspiracy to commit murder.
Today, Blanche is in the Stillwater prison, where he maintains he had nothing to do with the shooting.
“It’s a horrible mistake,” he said in an interview.
His lawyer said in the mid-1990s, “The cops went around and virtually had carte blanche to fabricate cases based on threats.”
Blanche suspects the police just wanted to get him off the streets, and pressured others to say he did it.
“You just get a bunch of people to talk to say things and you slap somebody across the head and send them to the river. You can’t do that no more.”
There was some evidence though: Seven of the 10 shell casings found at the scene had been fired from the same gun and matched shell casings found at shootings on May 17, May 31, and June 1. Witnesses said the shootings were the result of a feud between two rival gangs: the Bogus Boyz and Shortys Taking Over.
Blanche said he wasn’t even a gang member, even though around the time of his trial, the Star Tribune called him the “reputed leader of the Bogus Boyz” gang, which was responsible for hundreds of shootings in the year leading up to Phillips’ killing.
Blanche said he lived in an area of Minneapolis where shootings, drug dealing and prostitution was commonplace, and “You can easily be misconstrued as being a part of what’s going on.”
“I’m just a person that lived in the south side of Minneapolis,” he said.
He said in the Reformer interview that he had a clean record before he was arrested. But his adult record shows a half dozen convictions. At the time of the trial, the Star Tribune reported he racked up 15 convictions in three years, including one for holding a gun to his sister’s head.
Grigsby said Blanche “was on the periphery of a world in which crime was universal.” He added however: “Being condemned to die on a prison floor is not the right outcome for an innocent man.”
In response to Phillips’ shooting and another gang shooting, Minneapolis launched a Police Gang Strike Force. That unit was later investigated by the FBI and disbanded amid allegations of missing cash and seized property.
Defense attorney doesn’t defend Blanche anymore
When he was asked to take the Blanche case, Demetrius Clemons was a part-time public defender just coming off two years of probation after his law license was suspended in 1995 for unprofessional conduct.
Blanche didn’t appeal his conviction, but three years after the trial, he alleged Clemons did not adequately represent him. Blanche’s new attorney, Earl Gray, filed a petition seeking a new trial, alleging racial discrimination in jury selection, prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective counsel and erroneous sentencing. It was denied without a hearing.
Blanche appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ordered the district judge to hold an evidentiary hearing on his ineffective counsel claim. At the hearing, Blanche called Clemons to testify, but Clemons said he didn’t remember many of his actions or tactical decisions during the trial. The Supreme Court affirmed the lower court ruling that Clemons’ representation did not fall below an objective standard of reasonableness nor show that, if not for Clemons’ errors, the outcome would have been different.
Clemons is retired now, and said in an interview he doesn’t remember all the details of the Blanche case — including why he didn’t call Scott to testify at the trial, since his testimony would’ve conflicted with the prosecution’s.
But he did recall that Blanche “was running around shooting up stuff and killed a little boy.”
He said Blanche wasn’t a good client because he “acted a fool” during the trial.
“I did my best to represent him but he was difficult to deal with,” Clemons said. “He was loud and boisterous. He was trying to play a role that you don’t wanna play.”
Blanche said Clemons had a conflict of interest in taking the case, because he told him his son played with the Phillips boy. Clemons said he lived in north Minneapolis, and had a friend whose son was friends with Phillips, but “I didn’t know the kid.”
Clemons said he wishes Blanche well.
“I hope that Kawaskii gets some play but I don’t see how he will. I don’t like to see anybody in prison forever, but Kawaskii was not a good dude. He was a thug.”
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