Ashley Martin and her son Nehemiah look at a photo of Terrance Franklin, Nehemiah's father, on a phone in Denver on May 4, 2021. Credit - Kevin Mohatt for TIME
Almost a year after prosecutors vowed to revisit the 2013 killing of Terrance Franklin by Minneapolis police, family members are still awaiting official word of progress in the sensational and complex case.
Franklin died by five shots to the head, in what his family’s wrongful-death suit, since settled, described as a police execution. A lengthy TIME article and documentary in June 2021 detailed the evidence supporting their contention, including a recording of an officer shouting, “Come out, little n—-r! Don’t go putting those hands up now!” seconds before the 22-year-old Black man was killed. Forensic evidence indicated that two of the shots were fired by a pair of officers who had held their guns side by side and fired into his head at the same time.
The coverage prompted vows of action from the state’s two most prominent prosecutors, including Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, whose office presided over the original exoneration of the Minneapolis Police SWAT officers involved. Freeman said the case “troubles me” and in late July vowed to revisit it even after a state law enforcement agency declined his request to investigate, citing questions of jurisdiction.
“I am determined not to let this review die,” Freeman told TIME.
By autumn, signs had emerged that his office was indeed pursuing a case against at least some of those involved. Prosecutors were reported to be negotiating with attorneys representing two of the officers present during the encounter, discussing immunity from charges in exchange for information. But more than six months have passed since that news appeared across the front page of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
“The case is ongoing,” Freeman said in a brief telephone interview on June 13. “We’re still working on it.”
The prosecutor declined to elaborate, however, and the unexplained delay feeds the doubts of Franklin’s father. Walter Franklin says his skepticism is grounded in Freeman’s 2013 defense of the Minneapolis Police Department’s (MPD) self-investigation of the shooting, which repeated falsehoods about the police chase, cast Terrance as an automaton carrying out movie-villain feats, and failed to examine the audio recording that blows apart the officers’ account of the encounter.
“My gut feeling, to be honest, is he didn’t stand with us the first time. My confidence is just kind of down with him,” Walter Franklin said of Freeman, whose term as county attorney expires in January. Noting that the 74-year-old prosecutor is not seeking re-election, Franklin asked, “Is he going to just drag this on? If he leaves office, we got to start all over with somebody new.”
The case could also end up with the other Minnesota prosecutor who vowed to revive the Franklin investigation. State attorney general Keith Ellison last summer declared himself “shocked and appalled” by TIME’s reconstruction of the case, and grew animated discussing its implications. “This thing is going to build,” Ellison predicted in an interview, “because if it is what it looks like–and we don’t know yet—it’s very, very concerning.”
“Some of these old cases need to be looked at,” Ellison added. “The truth is, in some there’s going to be some inherent missing pieces that are going to make it extremely hard to draw a solid conclusion. And some of them, well, one category: some of these old cases are just appalling facts that need to be investigated, like Terrance Franklin.”
Ellison’s office did not respond to requests to comment for this story. Under state law, the Franklin case would come to him at the direction of Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, who in 2020 had Ellison take over from Freeman the prosecution of Derek Chauvin and three other then Minneapolis police officers for the death of George Floyd.
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Ellison, who is running for re-election in November, kept Freeman involved in the Floyd case, despite Freeman’s early missteps and difficult reputation among Minnesota civil rights activists. The fellow Democrats also cooperated on other prominent police shootings, most recently announcing jointly that no charges would be brought against the Minneapolis officer who killed Amir Locke, a young Black man awakened by a no-knock police raid. The prosecutors cited police body-camera footage showing that Locke had a gun in his hand when he was shot.
The Franklin case predated body cams. The five SWAT team cops present when he died were alone with him in the basement of a south Minneapolis home where Franklin had hidden. He was trying to elude a police dragnet sparked by a false report that he had attempted to run over a sergeant who had approached him about a previous burglary.
Franklin was unarmed. But in the basement encounter, rounds from a police submachine gun wounded two officers. To explain how, the cops (who were allowed to meet together privately before being interviewed by investigators) all told the same story: that Franklin had somehow managed to grab the machine gun, and was then swiftly killed by officers acting in self-defense. The MPD embraced that narrative, painting the officers as heroes.
A different scenario was laid out in the family’s lawsuit. It posited that the officers were wounded when the machine gun went off accidentally, and that Franklin was killed out of frustrated anger, or so he could be blamed. This alternate narrative aligns with a mosaic of evidence gathered by the family’s investigators, including two forensic reports.
In one, an audio expert examined the soundtrack of a videotape a bystander recorded outside the house where Franklin was killed. The key passage is stippled with racial epithets and dread: Franklin is heard announcing himself by his nickname–“My name is Mookie!”–and hollering, “Let me go!” It is then that he’s told “don’t go putting those hands up now” just before being shot 10 times.
His body was found on the floor beside a washer and dryer. One of his dreadlocks lay beside the corpse. An investigation by a firearms expert hired by the family reconstructed the shooting using the autopsy report, crime-scene photos, and recovered bullets. It was his report that indicated two police pistols had been fired into Franklin’s head in parallel and at the same instant.
“Those officers still need to be held accountable,” said Nekima Levy Armstrong, a prominent civil rights activist in Minnesota and former law professor at St. Thomas University in St. Paul. “It was so egregious.” She recalled that at the time of the killing, a few small protests were organized to pressure officials, but that Franklin’s death was “something that really fell below the radar screen. It was before the BLM movement, before the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson.” The case escaped scrutiny even when the city paid the family $795,000 in early 2020 to settle the wrongful-death suit.
“Freeman lacks integrity when it comes to these issues,” charged Armstrong, a past president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP and co-chair of the current mayor’s Community Safety Workgroup. She also doubts the attorney general’s sincerity, despite the Chauvin conviction. “From the public’s perspective, they may be champions for police accountability, but that’s just not how it is,” she said. “I think they put on a show for you, to look like they cared.”
Her view was not universal. Ashley Martin, the mother of Terrance Franklin’s son, who recently turned 14, noted that Freeman last July said, “I like to think we’ve learned some lessons” since 2013. She takes the prosecutor at his word.
“I think I have confidence in Freeman now,” she said. “I didn’t at first, but as of now I do. I’m confident that he’s going to do what he needs to do this time.”