Cop murder suspect accused of plotting to kill 2 witnesses
St. CLOUD, Minn. - The prison security footage, prosecutors say, shows Brian Fitch Sr. sliding a piece of paper under his cell door to a fellow inmate at Oak Park Heights.
St. CLOUD, Minn. – The prison security footage, prosecutors say, shows Brian Fitch Sr. sliding a piece of paper under his cell door to a fellow inmate at Oak Park Heights.
On it was a hand-drawn map to the home of a key witness in Fitch’s upcoming trial for the killing of a Mendota Heights police officer. Fitch, the prosecution claims, wanted the witness – along with another – dead.
The details of Fitch’s alleged attempt to conspire from behind bars were made public in court Tuesday morning as prosecutors and defense attorneys wrangled over the timing of the new evidence. Jury selection for Fitch’s murder trial is already underway, and his attorneys argue they need more time to review the new evidence if prosecutors are going to be allowed to use it.
Fitch, 40, is accused of fatally shooting Mendota Heights police veteran Scott Patrick during a traffic stop in West St. Paul on July 30. He’s also charged with attempted murder for allegedly shooting at other officers who arrested him later that day.
He has pleaded not guilty on all counts.
Prosecutor Phil Prokopowicz said the two witnesses Fitch wanted to have killed were people who had identified him as the driver of the green Pontiac Grand Am that Patrick pulled over just before his death.
One was Fitch’s ex-girlfriend, who told police that Fitch said he would shoot an officer if stopped, the prosecutor said.
He said Fitch approached another Oak Park Heights medical unit inmate in December about contacting “individuals on the outside” to kill the witnesses.
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension concluded the map Fitch passed off had his fingerprints on it and probably his handwriting, too, Prokopowicz said.
Lauri Traub, one of Fitch’s attorneys, said there was no way the defense could adequately prepare for the new evidence while simultaneously gearing up for a trial in which opening arguments are scheduled for Jan. 20.
“I can’t do my job and find experts if I am sitting here picking a jury,” she said.
She and defense attorney Gordon Cohoes asked Dakota County District Judge Mary Theisen for one of two remedies: suppress the evidence or delay the trial.
Otherwise, she said, Fitch will have ineffective counsel and “we will be back on appeal.”
Theisen said delaying the entire trial wasn’t an option, but scheduled a light afternoon of jury selection today to give the defense time to work.
The judge and lawyers for both sides began interviewing prospective jurors individually Tuesday to winnow a jury pool of 93 to 14 – a dozen jurors and two alternates.
They questioned 11 Tuesday. Two men were selected.
Prosecutors used pre-emptory challenges to dismiss two others. The defense did the same to four. Prosecutors can strike a total of nine jurors without giving reasons; the defense may strike 15.
Theisen dismissed the rest, for reasons ranging from a sick family member to an emotional response related to the death of another police officer to an admission of bias against Fitch.
A handful had already been dismissed based on the results of questionnaires they filled out Monday.
At least half of the prospective jurors questioned Tuesday said they had heard of the case. Most said they didn’t have strong opinions.
One woman who was eventually dismissed said she was inclined to think Fitch was guilty and thought he had already admitted as much – likely in reference to a statement he’s alleged to have made while hospitalized that was widely reported in the news media.
“I think the defense attorney’s going to ask you some questions about that,” Theisen said.
The trial was moved to St. Cloud because of concerns Fitch couldn’t get a fair jury in Dakota County. The lawyers and judge are the same, but the jury pool is from Stearns County.
The judge had words for Fitch earlier in the day. After hearing arguments on a motion, she admonished him: “Don’t be making faces at me while I’m ruling.”
Fitch, who was facing away from spectators, said he had made no faces. The judge replied that he had.
After juror questioning was done for the day, prosecutors raised what they termed a “security issue”: a letter they claim Fitch sent from prison. They did not say to whom it was written.
In it, they say he wrote: “I’m not going to be able to hold my tongue. If anyone gets up on the stand and is for sure telling a lie, I’ll call it out loud every time. What are they going to do, proceed without me? Nope. This is going to be a very interesting trial to say the least.”
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