WALKER - Judge John P. Smith Tuesday allowed Matthew Michael Martin, 19, Pine River, to withdraw his guilty plea to felony first-degree premeditated murder and set an April 9 omnibus hearing and May 5 jury trial dates in Cass County District Court.
Martin is accused of killing Molly Jean Rice, 15, Backus, in August near Backus.
Martin also faces four counts of felony first-degree murder while committing criminal sexual conduct, one count of felony second-degree murder with intent but without premeditation, one count of felony first-degree burglary and one count of felony third-degree criminal sexual conduct.
He had entered a guilty plea in Cass County District Court Jan. 28 after reaching a plea agreement, but later petitioned the court to withdraw his guilty plea after learning Minnesota law might not permit the judge to consider a downward departure from sentencing guidelines. Those guidelines call for mandatory life imprisonment for a first-degree murder conviction.
The Legislature set the mandatory life sentence in 2005. County Attorney Chris Strandlie said in a telephone interview last week that the changed statute is too new to have been challenged in court on whether judges can make a downward departure from sentencing guidelines under that statute.
Strandlie said Martin's plea agreement permitted him to ask for a downward departure, which could have enabled him to seek parole after 30 years. However, Strandlie said he planned to argue against a downward departure at Martin's sentencing. The judge would have had to make a ruling on whether to follow the statute.
By withdrawing his plea, the case now will go to a jury to decide whether he is guilty of any or all of the charges against him. If the jury finds him guilty of a first-degree murder count, he still could face life in prison.
A Backus cabin owner who returned to his property Aug. 8 found Rice's body on a bed inside a fifth-wheel camper on his property and notified law enforcement officers.
Martin initially was charged with second-degree murder Aug. 14. Subsequently, a Cass County grand jury heard testimony in the case and Sept. 13 handed down eight indictments against him, including the five first-degree murder counts.
According to the initial court complaint filed against Martin, he and Rice were among people attending a party the night of Aug. 4 in a wooded area by Pine Mountain Lake Road. They reportedly were the last people to leave the party and had turned down the offer of a ride home from another person attending the party.
The court complaint alleges Martin and Rice found the unlocked fifth-wheel camper parked on a rural Backus property and went inside where they reportedly engaged in sex.
The complaint states they argued before Martin stabbed Rice in the head. Martin then reportedly broke into a mobile home cabin on the property, took a .22-caliber pistol and shot Rice.
Martin told officers later in an interview that he decided his only option was to shoot her, because he knew he had engaged in sex with a minor, which is against the law, according to the initial criminal complaint.
Law enforcement officers recovered a .22-caliber pistol from an area adjacent to a pathway between the crime scene and a residence where Martin had been staying.
An autopsy listed the cause of death as a gunshot wound. The autopsy report also noted a stab wound to the head and separated ribs.
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