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Chance of Freedom: Man Fights to Overturn Life Sentence

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

Marvin Haynes in a Hennepin County Courtroom on November 28, 2023. The courts approved one camera to be in the courtroom and so this is from that feed provided by KMSP.

“I am innocent. 100 percent,” says Marvin Haynes.

No murder weapon, no DNA, and an unrelenting claim of innocence - after 19 years Marvin Haynes was back in the courtroom this week trying to clear his name of a Minneapolis murder he says he didn't commit.

In 2004 at just 16-years-old Marvin was accused of shooting and killing flower shop owner Harry “Randy” Sherer during a robbery. He stood trial about a year later and when his public defender failed to prove his innocence he was sentenced to life in prison.

Hennepin County Judge William H. Koch granted an evidentiary hearing which began Mon. Nov. 27. The judge heard two days of testimony, adjourning court Tuesday afternoon until December 20 when the court will hear from Ravi Seely who is expected to be the last witness. When the evidentiary hearing concludes the judge will decide to either vacate or uphold Marvin's conviction.

Marvin, now 35, was convicted primarily based on the oral testimony of several teens, many who have since recanted their statements. The tactics in which Minneapolis Police used to get those original statements was under scrutiny during the evidentiary hearing Monday. They were called unreliable by expert witness Nancy Steblay, a retired professor emeritus of psychology at Augsburg University where she's researched and taught on eyewitness topics since 1988.

“From my perspective back then I didn’t think someone could be wrongfully convicted,” Marvin testified that during the interrogations. “I thought they are going to sort it all out, they are going to figure it out because I had no involvement in it.”

On Tuesday, one of those teens, Marvin's cousin Isiah Harper, testified that detectives threatened him multiple times, coercing him to provide false testimony. Isiah, then 14, was told he’d go to jail for 15 years or more if he didn't testify and was put in an adult cell for hours. Afterwards he said investigators coached him on the statement that implicated his cousin in the murder. During the original trial he said he told jurors it was all a lie and attempted to tell the truth about his cousin's innocence but said prosecutors pulled him off the stand, took him in a private room and reminded him he would go to jail. While he said his public defender was present, he maintains that they didn't advocate on his behalf and he felt intimidated.

“We were a tight knit family. This drove a wedge in our whole family,” Harper testified on Tuesday.

On Monday, key testimony was provided by Detective Keefe who requested to not be filmed by the media. He said despite Marvin's conviction he was uncertain of the defendant's guilt.

On Tuesday, Marvin and four of his siblings testified. Their stories were all the same with Marquita, one of Marvin's older sisters, having a specifically important testimony. Marvin's other sisters were all able to testify that he was home sleeping at 10:30 a.m., an hour before the crime occurred; however, two of his sisters left for church at that time and his other sister, Marvina, went home shortly after.

“I know he did not commit a murder,” says Cynthia Haynes.

Cynthia was 13 at the time of her brother’s arrest. In cross examination she was asked, “How do you know that?” She replied, “Because he was at home.”

Marquita's testimony confirmed his alibi that her brother was home sleeping that morning until much later in the afternoon. Marquita said she was home the whole time and never saw him leave. On May 21, 2004, five days after the murder, Marvin’s sister Sherita Harris had told this same story to the Star Tribune. None of his sisters were asked to testify in his original trial.

During the original investigation other physical evidence was explored by prosecutors but nothing proved to be a match to Marvin. During the deadly robbery, the victim's sister, Cynthia McDermid, was inside the store. She told police she saw the suspect touch a card in the shop but when the card was tested, Marvin's fingerprints were not a match. Police also spotted a stain on Marvin's clothes but forensic evidence did not link it to the victim. The Hennepin County Attorney at the time was Amy Klobuchar. The now Senator has been criticized in recent years for her practices as an attorney that the community has said resulted in inequities for Black youth.

“With my family in the courtroom and a judge I thought someone would hear what was going on,” Harper testified on Tuesday. “But they had it all mapped out how they wanted it to go so it didn’t matter. They was making me lie on my cousin.”

Analysis of the original line up videos done by Unicorn Riot also reveal that Marvin was the only person who was called by name. When the victim's sister, the primary eyewitness, was asked to pick someone from a lineup, she went from selecting people who were thrown into the lineup randomly, to saying she could not confidently deem Marvin as the perpetrator. During McDermid's 911 call and early talks with police she described him as a Black male, 180 pounds in his early 20's with short-cropped hair.

“Mr. Haynes did not match the person McDermid had described,” said attorneys Andrew Markquart, Anna McGinn and Trish Palermo with the Great North Innocence Project in an application to the Minnesota Attorney General’s office.

Marvin Haynes was taken into custody May 19, three days after the murder. His mugshot shows he had long hair at that time but McDermid told police the suspect had short hair.

“The officers chose to use a two-year-old mugshot of Mr. Haynes in which he did have short-cropped hair,” the trio of attorneys said.

From the website

McDermid, who has since died, also described the suspect’s voice and dialect during the initial investigation. She told police the suspect had a conversation with her before the robbery, asking for a floral arrangement for his mother. She told police he spoke “with clarity” and he “sounded educated”. During the evidentiary hearing Tuesday all of Marvin’s sisters said that description contradicted what they knew to be true about their then16-year-old brother. They said Marvin spoke in broken sentences, used slang and had been performing poorly at school. Attorneys played clips of Marvin’s interrogation for Judge Koch showing how Marvin spoke in broken sentences and often used slang.

It is not often the court holds post conviction evidentiary hearings. So supporters of Marvin are hopeful the Judge who granted the hearing sees the gaps in his case. If the outcome is not what they’re hoping for then the recently formed conviction review unit may also be another pathway for Marvin’s release.

Watch other testimony here:

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