Supreme Court won’t hear appeal of Cloquet man’s overturned conviction
The Minnesota Supreme Court will not review an appeals court decision that overturned a Cloquet man’s murder conviction in a drug overdose case.
In a one-page order issued Wednesday, Chief Justice Lorie Gildea said the high court would not the accept the Carlton County Attorney’s Office petition for further review in the case of Robert Todd Ferguson.
Ferguson, who was serving more than seven years in prison for the fentanyl-overdose death of 25-year-old Paul Duane Mrosla of Carlton, was earlier released on bond after his conviction was overturned.
Assistant State Public Defender Lydia Villalva Lijo, who represented Ferguson in his appeal, said the appeals court decision will become final. The court issued a straight reversal of the conviction, without remanding it to district court for a potential retrial.
“What the appeals court found was that there was not sufficient evidence to support the conviction,” Villalva Lijo said. “Other than the accomplice testimony, there was no evidence to find that he was guilty of this offense.”
Carlton County Attorney Thom Pertler said Wednesday afternoon that he had yet to see the Supreme Court’s order. Michael Boese, the assistant county attorney who prosecuted the case, was out of the office and could not immediately be reached for comment.
Paul Duane Mrosla
Ferguson was found guilty by a jury in November 2015 of providing a prescription fentanyl patch to Mrosla, who was a friend of his daughter, Charity Ferguson. Prosecutors successfully argued that Ferguson sold the patch to Mrosla, who died in the driveway of his parents’ home after ingesting a portion of the patch at Ferguson’s residence.
Judge Leslie Beiers subsequently sentenced Ferguson to 86 months in prison.
On appeal, a three-judge panel concluded that the conviction should be reversed because it was based largely on the testimony of Charity Ferguson. The court wrote that the record was “devoid of evidence corroborating” her testimony that her father sold the patch to Mrosla.
Charity Ferguson was granted immunity from prosecution in the case and agreed to testify at her father’s trial — making her a legal accomplice and requiring jurors to provide additional scrutiny to her testimony.
The appeals court also cited the fact that prosecutors failed to file a brief in opposition to Ferguson’s appeal, saying they were left to decide a “very serious case … without the benefit of focused counterarguments to those presented by appellant.”
Pertler acknowledged that an apparent miscommunication resulted in the failure of his office to send Ferguson’s appeal to the Minnesota Attorney’s Office for potential review. The prosecutors on March 6 asked for the Supreme Court review.
Pertler and Boese argued in a brief that text messages exchanged in advance supported the theory that Ferguson sold the drug to Mrosla. They also said the record showed that Ferguson was the only person with access to the fentanyl and that Mrosla provided money to Charity Ferguson for the transaction.
“The Court of Appeals departed from the accepted and usual course of justice by failing to review evidence in the light most favorable to the State, and to resolve conflicts presented by the evidence in favor of the verdict,” the prosecutors wrote. “The Court of Appeals failed to consider or appropriately weigh significant corroborating evidence.”
The Supreme Court, per standard procedure, did not provide any comment on the decision to decline further review in the case.
The case is one of several brought by prosecutors across the Northland in recent years to target alleged suppliers of illegal drugs that result in overdose deaths.
Among other cases, an Eveleth man is currently appealing his third-degree murder conviction and 10-year prison sentence for providing his girlfriend with a fatal dose of a synthetic hallucinogen in 2013.
A separate panel of the Court of Appeals heard the case of Bryan Joseph Hodapp, 30, in March, and is expected to issue an opinion by June.