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Deputy Dewey murder trial: Jury begins deliberations

Thomas Lee Fairbanks

CROOKSTON, Minn. - The jury in the murder trial of Thomas Lee Fairbanks got the case at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday, after a long afternoon of closing arguments from both sides and instructions from the judge.

The jury of five women and seven men from Polk County deliberated until about 9:20 p.m. and then were sequestered in a local motel overnight and will resume deliberations at 8:30 a.m. today.

Minnesota District Judge Jeff Remick dismissed the two alternates from the jury panel before deliberations.

Fairbanks entered the trial - which opened Aug. 1 with jury selection discussions - facing 13 charges.

The main charge is first-degree murder of a peace officer in the Feb. 18, 2009, shooting of Mahnomen County Sheriff's Deputy Christopher Dewey. He also faced a count of failing to assist Dewey after he was shot, eight counts of assault on 14 law enforcement officers during an ensuing nine-hour standoff; assaulting his accomplice, Daniel Vernier, by shooting toward him; and being a felon in possession of a firearm and trying to steal Dewey's squad car.

But the charges against Fairbanks have changed in seemingly small but significant ways during the trial.

On Wednesday, the defense asked state District Judge Jeff Remick to add a lesser charge to the first-degree murder charge, which has a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.

Remick added the lesser charge of second-degree murder while committing a felony, meaning the jury could find for the lesser charge, which has a maximum sentence of not more than 40 years in prison.

Defense attorney Jim Austad, in fact, ended his two hours of closing argument by asking the jury to convict Fairbanks of the lesser charge.

His client was too intoxicated to form the intent required for first-degree murder, Austad said.

"He's not providing excuses, he's providing reasons," Austad said. "He's accepting responsibility for second-degree murder."

Prosecutor Eric Schieferdecker gave a 45-minute closing argument and a five-minute rebuttal after Austad's closing.

Whether Dewey tried to draw his gun or not is "a red herring," Schieferdecker said, because as a peace officer, he had the right to do so. Fairbanks, however, had no right under state law to draw a weapon on Dewey, even if he felt threatened by him, Schieferdecker said.

Echoing his opening statement, Schieferdecker said proving Fairbanks was intoxicated, under state law, is apart from the general burden on the prosecution to prove guilt; the defense must prove by the weight of the evidence that Fairbanks was intoxicated.

Plus, it must prove he was not capable of intent, Schieferdecker said.

Chairs were added to the courtroom Wednesday to handle the larger audience interested in hearing closing arguments.

During jury instructions, Remick referred to Dewey's death in hospice care Aug. 9, 2010, 18 months after he was shot by Fairbanks, in addressing what had promised to be perhaps the most controversial issue in the trial.

State law says that in a murder case, if a defendant is found to have committed an act that began a "chain of causation," leading to a victim's death, no medical treatment or lack of treatment can be considered to break that chain, Remick told jurors.

The jury that began deliberating Wednesday includes a nurse, a teacher, college students, a mechanic and a manufacturering worker, among others. Their ages range from early 20s to just short of 60.

Stephen J. Lee writes for the Grand Forks Herald