DULUTH – A man who fatally shot three men at a house party here in the mid-1990s will face the Minnesota Board of Pardons on Tuesday with an appeal to get out of prison 20 years early on his 50-year sentence.
Todd Michael Warren, 48, was convicted on three counts of first-degree premeditated murder in 1995 and has been in prison since he was 19 years old. The killings rocked Duluth at the time, and the trial drew long lines of spectators hoping for a seat in the courthouse. It remains part of the local lexicon; some of the families directly involved remain in the area.
In an application to the Board of Pardons sent in June, Warren asked for a commutation of the rest of his consecutive sentences and that he be eligible for parole in March 2024 — when he will have served the mandatory minimal term of 30 years.
The Board of Pardons, which is also able to commute sentences, meets publicly twice a year and includes Gov. Tim Walz, Attorney General Keith Ellison and Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Natalie Hudson. Under a recent rule change, just two of the three must vote in favor of clemency for eligible applicants to be pardoned or receive commutation; previously the vote had to be unanimous.
Warren’s application is one of nearly two dozen the board will consider on Tuesday, the second day of meetings for the board, at the Senate Office Building in St. Paul. Pardons and commutations are an uncommon outcome.
Warren was a senior at Proctor High School when he and his friends stopped at a party in Duluth’s East Hillside. According to court documents, Warren testified that he believed his girlfriend’s friend had been raped by other men at the party and that his girlfriend, who he found surrounded by men with her clothes askew, had also been sexually assaulted.
Warren left with his girlfriend and other friends, drove more than 20 miles to his family’s home to get a .44 caliber revolver, and returned to the party. He fatally shot Samuel Witherspoon, 21, Keith Hermanson, 20, and Peter Moore, 20. Warren fired more shots as he went to an upstairs bedroom where other partygoers were hiding. Two men wrestled the gun away from him. He left with a group of friends, including both women, and Doug Towle who was later convicted of aiding and abetting manslaughter. He was arrested soon after.
“It’s not like Todd just killed one person, he murdered three people,” said Sebastian Witherspoon, who was close in age to his brother Samuel. “On top of that, he continued to try to murder more.”
In his application, Warren wrote about the vocational skills he has mastered, the art he has made, the tutoring he has done, and time spent in the prison library. Warren took full responsibility for his actions, he said in a letter to the board. He is currently in the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Moose Lake.
“I have to live with the weight of what I’ve done, but I ask the Board to look at how I carry the weight,” he wrote. “Remorse and the ripple effects have humbled me.”
He had letters of support from his girlfriend, a writing instructor at the prison, and longtime friend Zachery Swanstrom, who was with Warren on the night of the murders but jumped out of the car on the way back to the party. His family said he will have housing, a vehicle and job opportunities when he gets out of prison.
“We are all so proud of the accomplishments he’s made while being incarcerated, and we believe that he will flourish once returned to society,” the family wrote in a letter signed by his parents, siblings, niece and nephews.
St. Louis County Attorney Kim Maki is among those who do not support Warren’s application for commutation. Maki said she reviewed court documents and talked to family members of the deceased — including Roy Hermanson who said he was never the same after his son’s death.
“Given that Mr. Warren’s crime is one of the most grievous in the history of St. Louis County, it is my position that, for justice to truly be achieved in this case, Mr. Warren must serve the entirety of his sentence,” Maki wrote.
In their response to the board, the Moore family included photographs of their late son, including the gravesite they often visit and the bridge where he caught his first fish.
“If Peter Juan Moore were alive, he would say ‘Jail forever,'” the family said in a handwritten note.