Earlier this month, the Burleigh County Sheriff’s Department issued a press release under the title, “Juveniles Charged with Conspiracy to Commit Murder”. Because the case involves minors, it’s understandable that names are withheld. And with it being an ongoing investigation, it also makes sense that only a limited amount of details can be given. Yet, serious questions have surfaced in regards to how the case is being reported and handled.
While discussing this case with a colleague, they asked something I hadn’t thought of. Could the way this case is being reported and handled be politically motivated? Look at the names of Burleigh County officials that surface in the reporting— Major Kelly Leben and Assistant State’s Attorney Julie Lawyer. Both of whom are running for office in November’s general election. In the case of Leben, he’s running for Burleigh County Sheriff. Then there’s Lawyer who’s running for Burleigh County State’s Attorney.
Though the information released from Burleigh County Sheriff’s Department was minimal, various news outlets ran with what was given them. For example, we have these stories from the Bismarck Tribune, KX News, and KFYR-TV.
Between the press release and subsequent news articles, the story is obviously pretty vague. In a nutshell, on July 29th, some teens went to the McLean Bottoms, on the Missouri River, and one of them allegedly hit an “adult” in the head with a baseball bat. The victim survived, but the juvenile who is believed to have swung the bat was initially cited with Aggravated Assault. But upon learning “that the assault was part of a planned event with juveniles self-identifying as a gang association”, the initial suspect and “two other juveniles have been cited for Conspiracy to Commit Murder”. The investigation is ongoing and other charges are pending.
For North Dakota, any story involving things like “Conspiracy to Commit Murder” and “gang association” is probably going to be fairly compelling. Yet, is this situation what it appears to be?
According to a source close to the case, it isn’t. In fact, if the information provided to The Minuteman is correct, one of the juveniles that’s been charged wasn’t even at the McLean Bottoms when the assault occurred. Now, that doesn’t mean this individual wasn’t necessarily part of this “conspiracy”, but that detail certainly wasn’t mentioned in the press release.
According to the KFYR-TV article, Assistant State’s Attorney Julie Lawyer indicated it was a possibility that the three juveniles could be tried as adults. Yet, in order to do so, KFYR-TV said Lawyer acknowledged they’d “have to prove the minor can’t be rehabilitated within the time of jurisdiction, which is usually four to seven years.”
And this is where it gets interesting. Again, if what The Minuteman has been told is true, the two juveniles that were there when the assault took place realized the seriousness of what they were doing, stopped, and took the victim home. Does that sound like kids who “can’t be rehabilitated”? We’ve also been told that the “adult” victim is an 18-year-old who’d been a friend of the juveniles and had traveled to the McLean Bottoms with them.
Another interesting aspect to note in this case is that we see no mention of North Dakota’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) getting involved. Perhaps they are and it simply wasn’t mentioned. But if they’re not, why? They’ve been called in to assist with cases far less compelling than this one is made to sound. The investigation of Bismarck police officers who signed the petition to recall Mayor Mike Seminary and a Corrupt Practices case in McKenzie County immediately come to mind. It would certainly seem odd if they weren’t called in to assist on a case involving “Conspiracy to Commit Murder” and “gang activity”. That is, unless things aren’t quite as compelling as they’ve been made to sound.
Hitting someone in the head with a bat is serious stuff— and deserving of severe consequences. But the way this press release – and subsequent press coverage – portrays this case is now being questioned. Is it what it appears to be? Do these juveniles even deserve consideration for being tried as adults? Are prosecutors mentioning the extreme of being tried as adults to simply make this an experience the juveniles will never forget— fully realizing that lesser charges will ultimately be pursued? Or are political motivations to appear tough on crime influencing the way it’s being handled?
It’s obvious we need more details to draw solid conclusions. But if this proves to be more along the lines of misguided teens than thugs in a gang, then it’s understandable why some might question the motivations behind those reporting and handling the case. In the meantime, let’s hope that justice is served— whatever that may be.