Darrick James Bellecourt will not be retried for the 2002 murder of 15-year-old Zack Peterson.
In an agreement reached Monday between defense and prosecuting attorneys at the Crow Wing County Judicial Center, Bellecourt, 22, pleaded guilty to second-degree unintentional murder of Peterson and was sentenced to 150 months in prison. Bellecourt's new trial was scheduled to start Aug. 20.
Peterson was shot three times during an altercation with Bellecourt on Oct. 13, 2002, at a downtown Brainerd apartment. A jury in September 2003 found Bellecourt guilty of second-degree intentional murder for the shooting death of Peterson and he was sentenced to 306 months in prison.
However, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled in February 2006 that the district court abused its discretion when it denied Bellecourt's request for the jury to be instructed on the lesser offense of first-degree manslaughter.
The Darrick Bellecourt conviction was overturned by an appeals court.
During Bellecourt's 2003 trial there was no debate between the defense and prosecution that Bellecourt shot Peterson. However, Bellecourt's defense attorney at the time, Trudell Guerue Jr., argued that Bellecourt acted in self-defense after being attacked by Peterson. Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan argued that Bellecourt demonstrated an unreasonable use of force without justification.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled the evidence presented during Bellecourt's trial provided a rational basis for the jury to find that Peterson was the initial aggressor and that, given the quick progression of events that led to the shooting, Bellecourt's actions were not "controlled and deliberate" but were "in the heat of passion and that his passion was provoked." Therefore, the jury should have been instructed on the lesser offense of first-degree manslaughter as Bellecourt requested, the Court of Appeals said.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Ryan said that, based on the Court of Appeals' ruling, the criminal complaint against Bellecourt was amended to include the original charge of intentional second-degree murder without premeditation and a new charge of unintentional second-degree murder without premeditation.
Ryan said that had the case gone to trial, it would have been reasonable to expect a judge to include the lesser offense of first-degree manslaughter.
Ryan said he agreed to Bellecourt's plea after consulting with Peterson's family members, who also were in court Monday.
"This puts closure on it, not only for victims, but for everyone," Ryan said. "It was the appropriate disposition in this case at this time."
Bellecourt's attorney for the new trial, Twin Cities-based Jordan Kushner, declined to comment on the plea negotiation.
Bellecourt will serve at least 100 months, or 8.3 years, in prison. With good behavior, the remaining 50 months could be served on supervised release.
MATT ERICKSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5857.
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