Guilty Verdict in Saint Paul Murder Trial of White Vigilante Not Enough, Says Victim’s Family
Saint Paul, MN — On March 30, 2023, Brian Kjellberg was found guilty by a jury of second-degree murder without intent for killing Arnell ‘AJ’ Stewart over a parking space near Kjellberg’s residence. But even before evidence shown in the trial indicated a racial motive, Stewart’s family and supporters have been calling this a premeditated, racially motivated killing and continue to demand authorities charge Kjellberg with hate crimes.
On December 2, 2021, Brian Kjellberg, who has been described as a white vigilante, killed AJ Stewart, who is Black, with a homemade shank for unwittingly parking in his private parking space in an alley outside Kjellberg’s home. Stewart, who was unarmed, was next door to Kjellberg’s home visiting friends. Kjellberg said he acted in self-defense after Stewart punched him in the face.
Nearly sixteen months later, the murder trial of Kjellberg, who’s been freed on bond since shortly after the killing, took only four days to conclude and only 90 minutes of deliberation for the jury to find Kjellberg guilty of second-degree murder for stabbing Stewart to death.
Kjellberg’s defense attorney, Earl Gray, has filed motions for acquittal (pdf) and for a new trial (pdf) with a motion hearing set for May 2 at 1:30 p.m. in the Ramsey County Courthouse. If the motions are unsuccessful, Kjellberg faces up to 40 years in prison at his May 17 sentencing hearing.
In a recent phone call, Stewart’s cousin Tongo Eisen-Martin, who is also San Francisco’s Poet Laureate, told Unicorn Riot that he believed Kjellberg’s crime was in ways similar to the recent shocking and unprovoked shooting in Kansas City, Missouri by an 84-year-old white man. Andrew Daniel Lester shot Ralph Yarl, a 16-year-old African American boy, in the head after Yarl rang the wrong doorbell while he was supposed to be picking up his little brothers. Fortunately, Yarl survived his attack, unlike Stewart, whose family continues to grapple with their loss.
Saint Paul activists along with Stewart’s family have called for federal hate crime charges and said Kjellberg was the Eastside’s George Zimmerman, Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael, and William Bryan. Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Bryan and the McMichael’s killed Ahmaud Arbery in 2020. Community members have said the murder is part of a troubling and apparently rising trend of white men acting under “presumed authority” and killing Black people over everyday interactions that they perceive as “threatening.”
However, charging prosecutors from Ramsey County and the Twin Cities’ corporate press played down any racial implications in the murder of AJ Stewart by Brian Kjellberg. And any potential evidence that could possibly confirm that this was a racially motivated crime was held tight by authorities and never leaked to the public prior to the trial.
“If you were to go off the headlines,” Eisen-Martin said, “you would visualize a strip mall ‘road rage’ incident. ‘A dispute over parking.’ It’s part of their apparatus, trying to keep people from knowing what world we are really living in and what we have to do to change it.”
Family Calls for Hate Crimes Charge in Killing of AJ Stewart
Family of AJ Stewart Speak on Patterns of White Supremacy That Led to His Killing Over a Parking Spot
Kjellberg’s murder trial began on March 27 and concluded on March 30, 2023. Unicorn Riot was not present at the trial, but did receive transcripts of the trial’s opening arguments.
Presiding over the trial was Chief Judge Leonardo Castro. Attorney’s Makenzie Lee, Nelson Rhodus and Hassan Tahir represented the prosecutor’s side while attorneys Earl Gray and Amanda Montgomery defended Kjellberg. Earl Gray had previously defended high-profile cases of killer cops such as Jeronimo Yanez, Thomas Lane, and Kim Potter.
Eisen-Martin, who attended three out of four days of the trial, said it was primarily a neighbor’s Ring Video Doorbell that captured the entire incident which sealed Kjellberg’s fate and secured the guilty verdict for the prosecution.
Hassan Tahir, the state prosecutor, said during opening arguments that Kjellberg was upset that people had been parking in front of the old Saint Paul fire station, which he purchased and transformed into his home seven years ago, and took out all of his anger on Stewart.
Next door at Stewart’s friend’s house, they were doing “musical chairs” with the cars, the cousin told Unicorn Riot, because parking was so tight. “One person would leave and another person would run outside and move their car into the empty space.”
Eisen-Martin said the whole situation was worse than expected. “AJ came up super apologetic and told Kjellberg ‘I’m moving the car.’”
According to the prosecutor, Stewart did apologize and even referred to Kjellberg as “sir,” telling him “I didn’t know.” Despite that, Kjellberg stood firm in front of Stewart’s burgundy Mercedes SUV while Stewart was trying to move his car so that it didn’t get towed. Tahir argued, “Mr. Kjellberg was not going [to] allow that.”
Kjellberg told Stewart to “Get off my property,” in which Stewart replied, “It’s my car, it’s my car. Move away from my car,” according to the trial transcript.
That’s when things escalated. “This caused a fight. Mr. Kjellberg at some point retorted to something that Mr. Stewart said by using the N word with a hard R at the end of it, and that led to punches being thrown.” Tahir said at that moment “Mr. Kjellberg retrieved a tool he had in his pocket of his jacket.”
However, Eisen-Martin told Unicorn Riot the Ring Doorbell video they played in court showed Kjellberg attack his cousin unprovoked. “He yelled ‘n*gger,’ like a war cry. He did this move and stuck AJ right in his heart. Like he had trained for that shit. The whole interaction was a few seconds. Less than a minute.”
The prosecutor said Kjellberg stabbed Stewart, “fracturing his ribs, and lacerating the left ventricle of his heart.” In the state’s opening arguments he disclosed the gory details. “In the moments that followed, each pump of the heart of Mr. Stewart ejected blood.” He continued, “and as Mr. Stewart first ran to [his friend’s] car and then ran [b]ack into the house where he was socializing all day, started to lose consciousness.” Tahir added, “He collapsed on the living room floor of [his friend] and essentially bled to death.”
Eisen-Martin said Kjellberg conjured up a story based on lies that he told to the police about AJ being the aggressor. “If anyone saw how AJ was so peaceful in his response and trying to move his car, from the beginning,” the poet-activist said, this whole case would have played out differently.
He told Unicorn Riot that he felt there may have been civil unrest had the public seen evidence that his cousin’s murder was a racially motivated attack. “If we had the Ring video, the city could have went up … If that would’ve been publicized, people would be in the streets,” he said. “Like what happened to Ahmaud Arbery. They just use this as the pretext to do this shit,” referring to white vigilantes who believe they can get away with killing Black people, unprovoked.
Eisen-Martin said that on the 911 call, Kjellberg didn’t even tell the dispatcher that he stabbed Stewart. He pointed to the discrepancies of Kjellberg claiming self-defense saying he feared for his life while telling the dispatcher he was uninjured, and even joking. “He said AJ assaulted him and then made a joke when they asked him if he was hurt. He said, ‘nah, but he is, haha.’”
During the trial, the state played the police interrogation video for the jury and all the spectators to see. According to Eisen-Martin, Kjellberg used racist “dog whistles” with the Saint Paul police while he was being interviewed, allegedly telling them he was “trying to make the neighborhood better,” asking “How much could I take?”
The cousin said Kjellberg was clearly trying to evoke racial sympathy from the two white detectives with his racial tropes, but they weren’t going for it. He said one detective was apologetic to Stewart’s mom and was convinced Kjellberg unjustly killed her son, telling her, “We’re gonna get this dude for murder.”
Kjellberg showed up to trial wearing an American flag lapel, and his family and supporters were wearing American flag sweatshirts, Eisen-Martin observed. Kjellberg was joking a lot inside the courtroom, which bothered Stewart’s mother and cousin.“His family and friends were joking in the courtroom too. You couldn’t tell who the killer was. They all had the same vibe, like they were all disconnected from life, from humanity. When we all saw that video and how evil Kjellberg was … from start to finish.”
The cousin said “his supporters were completely unbothered, and they filled up the entire courtroom,” describing a scary environment for him and the victim’s mother.
Tabatha Coleman, Stewart’s mother, wanted first-degree murder charges, saying Kjellberg premeditated the killing of her son by his own admission. “He said he stood in his door and waited for my son to come.”
The cousin agreed. In a recent video interview by Unicorn Riot, Eisen-Martin said that this senseless tragedy began with “this white guy sharpening a metal pipe into a shank, wrapping it with a black tape handle and ideating about murdering someone Black.”
However, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi charged Kjellberg with second-degree murder without intent, for Stewart’s killing, rather than first-degree. Choi’s office stated (pdf) in January 2022 that they would pursue further charges against Kjellberg if the evidence shows that the attack was racially motivated.
Eisen-Martin said Kjellberg was caught in a “racist fantasy” and wants federal charges, calling it a racially motivated attack.
“I dont know why this cat went to trial, his whole fucking thing was a lie. There was no defense,” he said. Adding, “He was not being attacked and he wasn’t even being disrespected.
“This was a fucking hate crime!”
On April 12, two weeks after the guilty verdict, Gray filed two motions contending the evidence, the impartialness of the jury, and the results of the trial.
First, calling for a judgment of acquittal (pdf), Gray said the state’s case was “based entirely on circumstantial evidence” and “failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Kjellberg’s defense of himself was unreasonable.” Gray victimized Kjellberg and legitimized his violence by saying because he had a “traumatic brain injury” in the past and because Stewart was on his property he was acting in self-defense when he “thrust the tool at Mr. Stewart.”
“The circumstances of his physical disability, the traumatic brain injury, being punched four times in the face while backing up on his own property,” the motion stated, “his only defense at that moment was to thrust the tool at Mr. Stewart.”
Second, Kjellberg’s defense called for a new trial (pdf) based on Facebook postings of a juror that showed “strong views regarding race” and what they called a lack of evidence proving Kjellberg was not acting in self-defense. Gray wrote: “The defendant set forth the defense of self and the evidence presented does not prove beyond a reasonable doubt Mr. Kjellberg did not act with reasonable self-defense.”
An affidavit filed by defense attorney Amanda Montgomery (pdf), reveals that a day after the verdict, she downloaded video and saved public Facebook posts made by the lead juror and submitted them to court because they were “related to ‘white people’ and killings of black people” and “related to ‘white privilege.’” Gray noted that this made the jury “not fair and impartial as they swore to be.”
“Posts about white people killing black people. Posts related to the George Floyd case. Posts related to Kim Potter’s trial. Posts related to other police/murder cases. Posts related to ‘white privilege.’”Affidavit-of-Attorney_MCRO_62-CR-21-6868_2023-04-12_20230420192546
Continue to follow Unicorn Riot for updates on this case from the May 2 motion hearing and the May 17 sentencing hearing.
Cover image by Niko Georgiades for Unicorn Riot.
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