Mesabi Trail murder conviction overturned by Minnesota Superior Court – Duluth News Tribune

ST. PAUL — A Chisholm man who admitted fatally shooting an Aurora man along the Mesabi Trail in Hibbing nearly four years ago can withdraw his guilty plea and go to trial for murder, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The Supreme Court vacated Deshon Israel Bonnell’s conviction of first-degree murder in the January 2019 killing of 33-year-old Joshua Robert Lavalley. Bonnell, now 22, is automatically serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 30 years after pleading guilty to intentionally killing Lavalley in a robbery that same year.

However, the Supreme Court unanimously found that the lawsuit was “inaccurate” and would constitute a “manifest injustice” if allowed to stand. The judges allowed Bonnell’s appeal, saying the records did not show the robbery and murder were part of “an ongoing transaction.”

“The principal crime of aggravated robbery was completed when Lavalley’s cash was stolen,” Deputy Judge Paul Thissen wrote in the 14-page statement. “There is no evidence – not even a hint – that Lavalley was killed during an escape from the aggravated robbery, or to cover up the aggravated robbery, or indeed for any reason connected with the aggravated robbery.”

The decision voids a plea agreement and returns the case to Judge Rachel Sullivan in Hibbing to try her on five counts. But it doesn’t ensure a better outcome for the defendant, as he now faces life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted of the main offense, first-degree first degree murder.

Bonnell was reluctant to provide details about the crime when he struck a deal with the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office in September 2019 to maintain the possibility of an eventual release from prison. He admitted to shooting Lavalley twice in the face but refused to identify his accomplices, saying he would not or could not relate certain events.

Bailey Bodell French

Two co-defendants testified in their own hearings that Bonnell carried a gun and spoke of a plan to kill Lavalley in retaliation for his alleged advances towards Bonnell’s girlfriend, Bailey Bodell French, then 17. Authorities said Bonnell, French and a friend, Anthony Emerson Howson, spent the day with Lavalley on January 5 before driving the victim’s roommate’s car to the Kerr area on the west side of Hibbing earlier on January 6.

French and Howson testified that a headscarf was placed over Lavaley’s face and he was led down the path by Bonnell and French and Howson waited in the car. French said her boyfriend directed her to return to the car, and on the way back she looked over her shoulder to see Bonnell completing the execution-style murder.

Lavalley’s body was discovered by a snowmobiler a few hours after his death. He had no wallet or ID, so investigators had to use fingerprints to identify the body. Family and friends learned of his death on Lavalley’s 34th birthday.

At his hearing, St. Louis County Attorney Bonnie Norlander asked Bonnell if he had possession of $5 that belonged to Lavalley. He admitted he did it and that he had a concealed firearm at the time, but declined to identify how the robbery took place.

“I was an intimidation factor,” Bonnell testified. “I’m just a big guy. I was just sitting there.”

Anthony Emerson Howson.jpg

Anthony Emerson Howson

Bonnell’s plea was brought before Judge Mark Starr, who retired before Bonnell filed a post-conviction relief motion in the district court in October 2021. Judge Sullivan denied the request in December, concluding that Bonnell acted with intent to kill Bonnell after robbing him during a “continuous” event.

But the Supreme Court said the records gave few details on the physical distance and the elapsed time between the robbery and the killing. Citing three dictionary definitions of the word, the judges said it “extends the ordinary meaning of legal language to conclude that Lavalley’s murder occurred on the Mesabi Trail while Bonnell was committing a serious robbery in Hibbing “.

“If anything, the fact that two events took place in two different locations suggests that the murder did not occur while Bonnell was committing aggravated robbery,” Thissen wrote. “This analysis applies to these facts, even if we assume that the distance between the two events was relatively short – a matter of a few miles. In particular, we have never confirmed a felony conviction where aggravated robbery is the predicate offense and the aggravation robbery and homicide took place at different locations.”

Prosecutors argued there was no “manifest injustice” because Bonnell’s testimony showed that it was a premeditated murder — a crime more serious than what he admitted. However, the Supreme Court said that argument was forfeited because it had not been made at the district court level.

Bonnell now faces his original charges: first-degree first-degree murder, first-degree first-degree murder in the commission of kidnapping, second-degree first-degree first-degree murder, kidnapping, and aggravated robbery.

Howson, 24, is serving a 25 ½ year sentence after pleading guilty to assisting and abetting second-degree first degree murder. He also tried to have his lawsuit dropped, but Sullivan and the Minnesota Court of Appeals said he clearly admitted intent to advance the commission of the crime, and the Supreme Court declined to take his case in October.

French, 21, is serving 37 ¾ years after pleading guilty to second-degree first degree murder and kidnapping. She later challenged the imposition of successive sentences as “unreasonable” – citing her age, mental illness and lesser culpability – but the Court of Appeal said in September 2021 that under the terms of her plea agreement, the sentence was clearly allowable and she was not provided “compelling circumstances justifying a change”.



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