Saint Paul, MN — Chief Judge Leonardo Castro denied defense attorney Earl Gray’s motions for acquittal and a new trial for convicted murderer Brian Kjellberg in a short Schwartz hearing on May 17. After appeasing the defense with the hearing over Gray calling the Black foreman of the jury “racist,” Judge Castro questioned only the foreman, disagreed with Gray’s analysis of juror conduct in regards to race and called for the quickest sentencing date possible, which is now set for May 31.
On March 30, 2023, after four days of trial and less than two hours of deliberation, Kjellberg was found guilty of second-degree murder without intent for fatally stabbing Arnell ‘AJ’ Stewart, 27, on Dec. 2, 2021, outside Kjellberg’s converted firehouse-turned-residence in St. Paul. Stewart’s family and advocates have consistently called the murder racially motivated and have demanded first-degree murder charges and federal hate crimes charges. Kjellberg, a 50-year-old white military veteran, faces up to 40 years in prison at his sentencing.
Kjellberg’s trial and subsequent hearings have been presided over by Judge Castro who was appointed in 2012 and elected as the first Hispanic chief judge of Ramsey County’s Second Judicial District in 2020. After opening up the hearing with a recap of the May 2 hearing for a new trial (pdf), Castro noted that Kjellberg’s defense didn’t strike or even question the juror who became the foreman during voir dire (jury questioning). The judge said three jurors were subpoenaed for the Schwartz hearing, one of whom couldn’t come, and that he would only be questioning the foreman.
A few minutes later, donning a perfectly rounded five-inch Afro, jury foreman Justin Fulton took the stand. Judge Castro explained to him that the defense felt the guilty verdict in the Kjellberg trial was predisposed based on Fulton’s Facebook postings. The judge asked numerous questions related to jury conduct and if Fulton was coerced or coerced others, to which Fulton simply continued to answer “no.”
Near the end of the five-and-a-half-minutes of procedural questioning, Judge Castro asked Fulton “did you visit the site called Unicorn Riot prior or during the trial?” Fulton responded, “never heard of it.” Castro continued that line of questioning asking if anything on Unicorn Riot’s site “influenced” his opinion, Fulton again said “no.”
Aside from the initial press conference featuring Stewart’s family, there has been little-to-no coverage of the case and ensuing trial by legacy media outlets. Unicorn Riot has published several videos and articles on the murder.
Family Calls for Hate Crimes Charge in Killing of AJ Stewart [March 29, 2022]
Family of AJ Stewart Speak on Patterns of White Supremacy That Led to His Killing Over a Parking Spot [Feb. 15, 2023]
Guilty Verdict in Saint Paul Murder Trial of White Vigilante Not Enough, Says Victim’s Family [May 1, 2023]
Defense Attorney Earl Gray Says Black Foreman is ‘Racist’ After Guilty Verdict, Judge Grants New Hearing [May 16, 2023]
Judge Castro thanked and apologized to Fulton “on behalf of the court for having to come in today and answer these questions” before excusing him from the stand.
The state responded that the judge should deny the motion. Defense attorney Gray then argued that it was “not fair” of the judge to just question the person accused by them of coercing others.
A back-and-forth between Gray and the judge occurred for the next five minutes with Gray saying it’s improper to discuss race in deliberation, “that’s not allowed.” However, the word race is never mentioned in the jury instructions (pdf). The closest instruction notes the following to consider during deliberation: “Feelings of prejudice, bias or sympathy toward either the defendant or the state. You are to take a neutral position and decide the case on the evidence and the law.”
Judge Castro responded that Gray was mistaken and that a jury is allowed to talk about race, especially a case such as this, with a white murderer and Black victim. He furthered, “we also can’t ask what [the jury] said” during deliberations. Judge Castro then denied both defense motions.
With Judge Castro presiding aside his stenographer and court clerk, defense attorneys Gray and Amanda Montgomery sat next to Brian Kjellberg, across the table from Assistant Ramsey County Attorneys Hassan Tahir and Makenzie Lee.
A bit over two dozen people filled the 13th Floor Ramsey County courtroom seats for a mid-day Schwartz hearing. About 15 in attendance gathered after the hearing, signifying they were supporters of Kjellberg and the others were a subpoenaed juror, his partner and the foreman’s family.
Kjellberg’s pre-sentence investigation has been completed and he awaits the May 31 sentencing date a free man — he was bailed out shortly after being jailed for Stewart’s murder in December 2021. Unicorn Riot will be covering the sentencing.
Not happy with the outcome, on May 19, Gray filed a correspondence to the judge requesting the ability to “question all 12 jurors that were part of deliberation in this case at the Schwartz hearing.” Gray attached a Minnesota Law Review article on juror misconduct along with proposed questions for the juror foreman and the other 11 jurors. See the court filing below (pdf).MCRO_62-CR-21-6868_Correspondence_2023-05-19_20230521185408