Conviction Review Unit recommends first-degree murder conviction be vacated after 23 years

Brian Pippitt files motion in Aitkin County to vacate 2001 conviction

Recommendation to vacate Pippitt’s conviction marks the first person the Conviction Review Unit has recommended for full exoneration

June 6, 2024 (SAINT PAUL) — The Conviction Review Unit (CRU) of the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office announced today it has recommended that the 2001 conviction in Aitkin County of Brian Pippitt for first-degree murder be vacated. This recommendation is based on an extensive, independent investigation of the conviction that the CRU conducted. The report is 181 pages long: it contains 987 footnotes that cite to approximately 250 source documents, and took core CRU staff more than 1,100 hours to complete.

Based on the CRU report, Mr. Pippitt has filed a petition for post-conviction release in Aitkin County District Court, in which he asks that his conviction be vacated and the charges against him dismissed. The petition, to which the CRU’s report is attached, is available by searching Court File Number 01-K4-99-000325 at Minnesota Court Records Online.

This marks the first time the CRU has recommended the full exoneration of an incarcerated person, and the second time it has recommended relief based on a wrongful conviction.

The CRU initiated its review of Mr. Pippitt’s conviction upon his application to the CRU for review. Minnesotans who claim they have been wrongly convicted of a crime may apply to the CRU to have their convictions reviewed, as Mr. Pippitt did. An application to the CRU is not a guarantee of review: the CRU screens all applications with an unbiased eye to determine whether there are plausible claims of a wrongful conviction. Of the approximately 1,100 applications the CRU has received as of May 2024, it closed approximately 850 of them without offering relief to the applicant. The vast majority of the remaining applications are pending further review. Upon that review, the CRU may begin a more in-depth investigation to thoroughly explore the applicant’s claim, or it may close the case.

More information, including frequently asked questions and application forms in English, Hmong, Mandarin, Somali, and Spanish, are available on the Attorney General’s website.

“After determining that Mr. Pippitt’s application for review had merit, the Conviction Review Unit conducted a careful, lengthy, objective review of the case, during which it engaged outside experts and sought and incorporated diverse opinions. It has now issued its report: I endorse its findings and encourage everyone to read it carefully,” Attorney General Ellison said. “Our goal is to ensure that no innocent person is serving time in a Minnesota prison for a crime they did not commit. No person or community is safer, and justice is not served, when an innocent person is convicted and imprisoned. The only person that is served by a wrongful conviction is the perpetrator who committed the crime.”

Reasonable doubt about conviction of Brian Pippitt

On February 2, 2001, Brian Pippitt was found guilty of first-degree premeditated murder. Mr. Pippitt stood accused of murdering Evelyn Malin, a beloved 84-year-old storekeeper in Aitkin County. Ms. Malin was discovered on the morning of February 24, 1998, beaten and strangled in the living quarters that were connected to her convenience store.

At trial, the Aitkin County Attorney who led the prosecution presented a theory that Mr. Pippitt, along with four other men, burglarized her store for beer and cigarettes and killed Ms. Malin in the process. Two unreliable witnesses provided testimony that directly linked Mr. Pippitt to the crime. Both witnesses provided incentivized testimony. One of the witnesses was a co-defendant who testified about Mr. Pippitt’s involvement in the burglary-murder in return for a favorable plea deal. The other was a jailhouse informant with a mental illness and a federal conviction for bank robbery who testified that Mr. Pippitt made admissions of guilt while awaiting trial. Months after Mr. Pippitt’s trial, the county attorney made a recommendation for leniency to a federal judge presiding over the informant’s sentencing hearing for the assistance the informant rendered in securing Mr. Pippitt’s conviction.

However, the testimony that both witnesses provided at trial was unreliable and should have never been presented to the jury. Both witnesses have since recanted their testimony.

The co-defendant, for example, testified at Mr. Pippitt’s trial about details of the murder which conflicted with other evidence investigators had collected. The co-defendant also gave numerous pretrial statements and testimony with details about the events leading up to, during, and after the murder; these details, however, evolved significantly over time and conflicted with one another. In July 2021, the co-defendant admitted that he fabricated his involvement and knowledge of the crime for investigators.

Similarly, the jailhouse informant testified at Mr. Pippitt’s trial that Mr. Pippitt confessed to him he killed Ms. Malin. The details of the informant’s testimony, however, conflicted with other evidence investigators had developed. For example, the informant testified that Mr. Pippitt and his accomplices stuffed tissue into the mouth of the victim. The medical examiner, however, found no evidence this occurred. In January 2020, after the informant was confronted with discrepancies, he recanted, admitting that he confused discussions with Mr. Pippitt about the accusations pending against him with actual admissions of guilt.

During the CRU’s investigation into the credibility of the key witnesses’ recantations, the CRU discovered that the prosecutor’s theory of the case, including how the defendants allegedly entered and exited the building, was implausible and that key evidence tending to exonerate Mr. Pippitt was overlooked. For example, investigators determined that one of the accomplices entered Ms. Malin’s building through a small window leading into the basement. Crime scene experts have noted since, however, that given the forensic details left behind at the crime scene, no one entered through that window. Experts concluded that the scene was staged to make it appear as though the window was the entry point; investigators missed all the details suggesting that the crime scene was staged. In addition, no fingerprints, hair, or DNA were collected that matched Mr. Pippitt or any of the co-defendants. Finally, Mr. Pippitt had an alibi for the evening, which he provided to investigators days after the murder, and before he was considered a person of interest.

Furthermore, two alternative suspects who appeared to have motive, means, and opportunity to murder Evelyn Malin were never fully investigated and fully cleared of wrongdoing. Mr. Pippitt’s defense counsel failed to present either of the alternative suspects to the jury. Defense counsel also failed to highlight how the prosecutor’s theory of the case was incongruous with photographic evidence of the crime scene. Ultimately, Mr. Pippitt’s counsel was unprepared, under-experienced, and overburdened, preventing him from competently representing Mr. Pippitt at trial, which he has admitted.

In 2007, after the county attorney who prosecuted Mr. Pippitt left office, he was disbarred from the practice of law in Minnesota.

After an extensive investigation into these factors and more, the CRU has found insurmountable reasonable doubt about Mr. Pippitt’s conviction, and the Attorney General’s Office has recommended that Mr. Pippitt’s conviction be vacated.

History of Minnesota’s Conviction Review Unit

In October 2020, Attorney General Ellison announced the creation of the Conviction Review Unit in the Attorney General’s Office. Minnesota’s CRU is one of only a handful in the country that operates on a statewide basis through an Attorney General’s Office. 

In January 2021, Attorney General Ellison announced the 17 members of the Conviction Review Advisory Board, comprised of leading experts and practitioners in criminal justice.

In April 2021, Carrie Sperling started as the CRU Director.

In June 2021, the CRU Advisory Board ratified one of the most expansive charters of a conviction review unit in the United States. Minnesota’s charter sets forth the guiding principles, policies governing case review, case review criteria, and other policies governing the CRU. 

In August 2021, the CRU began accepting applications from individuals who claim they are wrongfully convicted. 

CRU review of conviction of Thomas Rhodes and Rhodes’s release from prison

In January 2023, the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office announced it would agree to vacate the 1998 conviction of Thomas Rhodes on first- and second-degree murder in the death of his wife, Jane Rhodes. The announcement came after the CRU recommended that Rhodes be released from prison after serving 25 years. The CRU’s extensive investigation of Mr. Rhodes’ convictions concluded that the medical evidence relied on at trial was flawed, particularly including the now-discredited testimony of former Ramsey County Medical Examiner Michael McGee.

Because the Attorney General’s Office originally prosecuted the case, it agreed to Mr. Rhodes’s motion to vacate his conviction for first- and second-degree murder; however, it concluded based on the CRU’s review that even though sufficient evidence did not exist to convict Mr. Rhodes on the murder charges, sufficient evidence did exist for a conviction for second-degree manslaughter, to which Mr. Rhodes then pleaded guilty. Mr. Rhodes was released from prison when the court vacated his murder convictions and accepted his guilty plea for manslaughter.