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Update: In a January 18 statement reported by the Star Tribune, Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty said she would not pursue charges against Mauri Friestleben. “After a thorough, effective investigation by the Minneapolis Police Department, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office is now focused on holding the sole person we believe responsible for the murder accountable,” she said.
The family of Deshaun Hill Jr., the 15-year-old North Community High School quarterback who was shot and killed blocks from his school last February, wants a criminal investigation into the school principal for possible criminal negligence in Hill’s death.
“The question is, did she create an unreasonable risk criminally by allowing those kids to leave the school in the middle of the day, and over the objection of the two times the district said no,” said William Walker, the family’s attorney, in an interview with Sahan Journal. His initial comments came after a court proceeding in downtown Minneapolis, as jury selection began in the trial of Cody Fohrenkam, who is charged with second-degree murder in Hill’s death.
His clients believe that the actions of Mauri Friestleben, the North High principal, constitute the “direct and proximate cause” of their son’s death, Walker said. He plans to ask Attorney General Keith Ellison and Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty to open criminal investigations into her actions, preferably by convening a grand jury—that is, a group of citizens who can make criminal charging decisions, rather than leaving the decision up to the prosecutor. “It removes any degree of partiality,” Walker said. “What prosecutor wants to have to deal with that type of responsibility?”
Friestleben did not respond to an email request for comment. Minneapolis Public Schools and Moriarty’s office declined to comment. Ellison’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Eric Newmark, a managing partner at the Minneapolis law firm Newmark Storms Dworak (and who is not involved in the case), said he found criminal charges against Friestleben extremely unlikely. “I don’t see any possibility of criminal charges against the principal based on those allegations,” he said.
D. Hill, as his friends and family called him, was shot near a bus stop around 12:30 p.m. on February 9, 2022. That day, students had organized a walkout to Minneapolis City Hall, protesting the fatal Minneapolis police shooting of 22-year-old Amir Locke one week earlier, during a no-knock raid.
Friestleben encouraged and attended the walkout—despite warnings from the district, Walker said.
“If a person creates an unreasonable risk, number one, and two, consciously takes the chance of causing death or great bodily harm, then that’s criminal negligence,” Walker said. “We know that it had to be conscious because they told her beforehand, Don’t do it. We don’t have enough staff.”
Newmark said he doubts that argument will lead to state charges. For an action to be considered criminally negligent, the consequences must be foreseeable, the attorney explained. “Simply allowing the students to protest, there’s no possible way a prosecutor would charge, let alone be able to prove that was foreseeable—that the students being outside was going to result in the shooting and death of one of the students.”
Prior to George Floyd’s murder, Walker said, Minneapolis police officers escorted North students to the bus after school every day. Then a group of “Angel Moms”—retired women in pink T-shirts—would wait with students at the bus stop. Those facts, he said, show that Friestleben should have known the risk of releasing students early and without extra precautions.
After Minneapolis police killed Floyd, the school district ended its contract with the police department. Homicides increased dramatically in Minneapolis and around the country in the wake of the pandemic and Floyd’s murder; many killings were concentrated in north Minneapolis. The Angel Moms continued accompanying students at bus stops.
Tuesday Sheppard, D. Hill’s mom, drove him to and from school, as she describes in the recent four-part Showtime docuseries Boys in Blue. The documentary focuses in part on the North High football team, including D. Hill. Filming was mostly completed when D. Hill was killed.
Months before his killing, Sheppard reflected on her fears for her son—a scene that ended up in the first episode of the docuseries.
“The hardest part for me is going to, like, the bus stop, catching the bus for school, going to the corner store,” she says, seated around a kitchen table with family members, including her son. “Because I don’t know if it’s going to be the last time I see him, because it’s that bad around here.”
Sheppard explains that she prefers to drive her son and his friends around, “because I don’t want them to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s my biggest fear.”
A ‘termination’ for Friestleben—followed by reinstatement
Friestleben, a popular principal, has also been featured in a documentary. She is the central character in the KARE 11 film Love Them First, about her time as principal at Lucy Laney Community School. The film premiered in 2019; that fall, Friestleben left Lucy Laney to become principal of North.
In a letter to North High families in May 2022, Friestleben announced her “termination” from Minneapolis Public Schools over her decision to walk out of school with students in February. “MPS requires schools to follow protocols in times like that and I did not,” she wrote. “I was ‘strongly’ advised not to attend the sit-in with my students and I did so anyway.
“The tragedy of that day, though, will never be my termination from MPS as a result of my choice to join my students,” she continued. “The tragedy of that day will always be while we were en route downtown, our beloved classmate Deshaun Hill, Jr. was en route going home and was murdered along the way.”
An uproar followed. Students threatened to walk out over Friestleben’s termination. Some school board members broke publicly with district leadership over the decision. The district said initially that she had not been terminated, but instead was “on leave.” The news broke on a Friday. By Sunday, the district announced Friestleben would be back in school the next day.
In a court petition filed in October, Sheppard told the court that her son’s death “was caused by the wrongful act or omission of Minneapolis Public Schools.” Last week, the Minneapolis Public Schools approved a $500,000 civil settlement with Hill’s family.
But the family wants criminal prosecution, too, Walker said.
“What is to keep this principal from doing the exact same thing tomorrow?” he asked. “Because she recognizes that what she did was wrong? Or should there be some penalty?”