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Published November 15 2009

Forum editorial: Shooting case delay shameful

It should not take five months to complete autopsy and toxicology work associated with a shooting death. But that’s the situation regarding the June fatality of 17-year-old Joel LaFromboise of Moorhead, who was shot by Vernon Allen during what police described as an apartment invasion. The shooting victim wandered into Allen’s apartment. Allen said the youth seemed intoxicated, and others reported the youth was disoriented.

Nearly five months later, questions regarding the youth’s intoxication remain unanswered because the state crime laboratory in Bemidji, Minn., has not completed all its work, including ballistics tests. The toxicology work apparently is in. Authorities in Moorhead said immediately after the shooting that they expected to have complete autopsy results in two to four weeks.

Fallout from the long delay is taking three predictable tracks. First, it suggests dysfunction in the state’s crime lab. That might not be the case, but the perception cannot be dismissed.

Second, the delay can be seen as being orchestrated by Moorhead authorities so that the public will forget about the incident. The longer the delay, the further the story recedes in the public mind.

If the latter strategy is part of what’s going on, it won’t work. LaFromboise’s family won’t let it rest. Nor will the local media, specifically this newspaper, where the incident is on our to-do agenda. Officials in Moorhead claim they want the results as quickly as anyone else. We’ll have to take them at their word.

Third, and most disturbing, is the racial and class component. Some of the anger among LaFromboise’s friends is fueled by the belief that the case has not been resolved because the victim was an American Indian who appeared to be drunk. The youth’s family is angry because the shooter has not been charged with murder. Authorities said the investigation is not complete, so charges, if any, have not been filed.

LaFromboise’s friends contend that if the same circumstances involved a white boy from an upper-middle-class neighborhood in south Moorhead, the case would be resolved by now.

Moorhead police said partial lab results have been forwarded to Clay County Attorney Brian Melton. Melton and the police haven’t released anything of substance, citing the ongoing investigation. They should release what they have, if for no other reason than to offer the victim’s family and the public some assurance that progress, however minimal, is being made.

Whatever the eventual outcome of this tragedy, this much is clear: The state lab has not done its job well, and local authorities come off as complicit in the lab’s apparent incompetence.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.