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Stephen J. Lee, Forum Communications Co., Published September 01 2011

Fairbanks convicted of Deputy Dewey's murder, faces mandatory sentence of life in prison

CROOKSTON, Minn. – A jury here found Thomas Lee Fairbanks guilty of first-degree murder in the shooting of Mahnomen County Sheriff’s Deputy Christopher Dewey, bringing gasps in the courtroom as the verdict was announced.

The charge carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. Prosecutors asked state District Judge Jeff Remick to sentence Fairbanks, who turns 35 this month, immediately. Defense attorneys asked for time to prepare for sentencing.

Remick met with both sides for 20 minutes in his chambers and then said Fairbanks will be sentenced Sept. 9 in Mahnomen. That’s appropriate, Remick said, because it is a Mahnomen County case.

The venue of the trial was moved to Crookston more than a year ago because of concerns about pre-trial publicity.

Defense attorney Ed Hellekson said Fairbanks will appeal the verdict.

The jury deliberated about nine hours Wednesday evening and Thursday before telling the court around 3:15 p.m. it had reached a verdict.

The jury of five women and seven men also found Fairbanks guilty of four of six charges of first-degree assault on a peace officer for allegedly shooting the same gun toward the officers during the ensuing standoff Feb. 18, 2009.

On two of the assault charges, the jury found there wasn’t enough evidence Fairbanks shot toward the officers named in the charge.

Fairbanks also was found guilty of two counts of second-degree assault for shooting toward two White Earth tribal conservation officers during the standoff, of failing to assist Dewey after he was shot, of being a felon in possession of a firearm and of trying to steal Dewey’s squad car after he shot him in the head and torso.

The judge's ‘good heart’

Fairbanks’ mother, Roberta Fairbanks, was held on each side by a friend and a sister as she sobbed after the verdict. The courtroom was cleared to let eight relatives and friends of Fairbanks stand across the wooden panel from him. As he finally was able to face his family close up in the courtroom after a month-long trial in which he mostly had remained ramrod straight and stoic in his chair with little expression, Fairbanks’ face began to crumple and he cried as he looked at his mother.

Hellekson said it was a rare concession by Judge Remick, coming from a “good heart,” to allow Fairbanks, at Hellekson’s request, about 20 minutes to talk and cry with his family after the verdict.

Dewey’s family and friends, including his widow, Emily, and prosecutors, had smiles after the verdict. The room was filled with law enforcement officers, too.

Eric Shieferdecker, one of two state assistant attorney generals who prosecuted Fairbanks, said his department’s rules keep him from commenting much.

But before he went into a room to talk with Dewey’s wife and other family members after the verdict, he said, “We’re happy for the Dewey family.”

Hellekson was one of two public defenders – with Jim Austad – who represented Fairbanks.

Defense will appeal

Hellekson said he will notify the court today that Fairbanks will appeal the verdict. The state’s appellant office now will take over the case, he said.

He expects a number of issues, including rulings by Judge Remick about what the defense could argue during closing, as well as the racial makeup of the jury, will be raised in appeal, Hellekson said.

A pre-trial study by the defense found that the pool of 100 people examined for the jury had only two people who indicated they were minorities, Hellekson said.

But a study by the defense found that 8 percent of Polk County’s population is minorities and he had asked that the jury pool reflect that percentage, Hellekson said.

He had asked that the trial be moved to Crow Wing County, surrounding Brainerd, Hellekson said. It’s not just because he lives there, but because the population is more diverse, reflecting something closer to Mahnomen County’s large American Indian population, Hellekson said.

Despite his concerns about the racial or ethnic make-up of the jury, Hellekson said, “It was a great jury.”

Juror Marcy Winter, Fosston, Minn.: “I just need to relax a little bit and think about everything” before saying much.

“We knew it was an important thing and wanted to make sure we followed all the court’s directions and the evidence,” she said. “It’s not something you just decide quickly.”

Attorneys from both sides praised the work of the jury.

Closure for department

Dewey died Aug. 9, 2010, in hospice care from complications from the gunshot to his head, and his funeral drew many law enforcement colleagues.

Mahnomen County Sheriff Doug Krier said Thursday that Dewey’s badge number, 909, has been retired.

“Nobody else will ever wear that number,” Krier said.

Dewey’s replacement, Deputy Jake Thompson, was in court Thursday with a handful of other deputies from the county. It’s been a long time of stress for his department of 10 deputies, in addition to himself, Krier said.

“I think the best thing that is going to come out of this is that we will have some closure for the department, but especially for the family (of Dewey),” Krier said. “This has been going on for two and a half years.”


Stephen J. Lee writes for the Grand Forks Herald