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Minnesota Supreme Court overturns 1 assault conviction in Deputy Dewey case

Thomas Lee Fairbanks

A man in prison for the death of a Mahnomen County deputy will not be going free anytime soon, after the Minnesota Supreme Court largely upheld the multiple convictions in the case.

Thomas Lee Fairbanks, 37, was earlier found guilty by a jury of first-degree murder of a peace officer, failure to render aid to a shooting victim, four counts of first-degree assault, two counts of second-degree assault, being a felon in possession of a firearm, and  attempted theft of a motor vehicle in connection with the shooting death of Mahnomen County Deputy Christopher Lee Dewey.

On Feb. 18, 2009, after a night of drinking and drugging, Fairbanks shot the 27-year-old Dewey without provocation after encountering him outside a residence in the city of Mahnomen, severely injuring him with shots to the head and abdomen.

Dewey struggled to recover and died from complications about 18 months later.

On appeal, Fairbanks made four arguments:

  • The district court abused its discretion when it transferred venue to Polk County.

The court found that Polk County was a logical place to hold the trial: It’s within reasonable driving distance for attorneys and witnesses, and Fairbanks was already in jail there because of inadequate facilities in Mahnomen County.

The court found that press coverage was fair and had not prejudiced Polk County jurors. “Of the 119 articles Fairbanks submitted with his motion to change venue from Polk County, most were published 11 months or more before trial,” the court wrote. “While the press continued to cover the case as the trial approached, the coverage was generally confined to statements of fact.”

  • Fairbanks argued that the common law “year-and-a-day rule” barred the murder prosecution.

The court said the year-and-a-day rule is an ancient English common law doctrine providing that a defendant may not be convicted of murder unless the victim dies from the defendant’s act within a year and a day of the act.

At the time of its adoption in the 13th century, the primary justification for the rule was that medical science was unable to establish causation beyond a reasonable doubt when a great deal of time passed between the injury to the victim and the death.

“No Minnesota constitutional provision, statute, or reported case has adopted, applied, or even acknowledged the existence of this ancient common law rule,” the court ruled. “We hold that, if the rule ever existed in Minnesota, it did not survive the 1963 enactment of Minnesota’s modern criminal code…”

  • Fairbanks argued that the district court abused its discretion by admitting into evidence several autopsy photographs and a “spark-of-life” (pre-shooting) photograph of Deputy Dewey.

But the court ruled the prosecution did not misuse the photos to sway or inflame the jury.

“The autopsy photographs were displayed during this testimony to illustrate the physical changes to Deputy Dewey due to the shooting,” the court found. “The autopsy photographs specifically supported the medical examiner’s testimony about Deputy Dewey’s massive weight loss, his inability to swallow and receive enough nutrition, the pressure ulcers that developed on his body, and the effect of the multiple skull fractures he suffered. Therefore, the autopsy photographs were highly relevant on the issue of causation.”

  • Fairbanks argued that the evidence had been insufficient to support the jury’s verdicts finding him guilty of four counts of first-degree assault.

The Supreme Court overturned one count of first-degree assault, ruling that it could not be determined if Fairbanks had fired shots at a group of officers to the east of a house, where he was holed up during the standoff that followed the shooting.

But the court let stand all the other convictions, including the murder conviction and the other assault convictions — for shooting towards officers on the south side of the home.

The Minnesota Supreme Court decision did not affect his sentence: Fairbanks is serving a term of life in prison without the possibility of release.

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