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Minnesota's Renville County taking more cases to trial under new policy

The Renville County Attorney's Office is handling a large volume of cases while it pursues a policy of taking cases to trial rather than agreeing to plea bargains.

Kelsie Kingstrom PS.jpg
Kelsie Kingstrom
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OLIVIA — The Renville County Attorney’s Office opened 31 new cases in April, 17 of them criminal cases, adding to a workload that totals 680 files of all types.

“Humongous,” is how newly appointed interim County Attorney Kelsie Kingstrom described the total in a report Tuesday to the Renville County Board of Commissioners.

Of the total, 120 of the files are on warrant status and include everything from petty misdemeanors to major crimes. Kingstrom said there are 560 files that she termed as actively floating.

The large caseload comes as the office is down to two full-time attorneys with the recent retirement of attorney Glen Jacobsen, a 20-year veteran of the office.

Kingstrom began her duties as county attorney on April 2, succeeding David Torgelson. He now serves as an assistant county attorney in the office. Kingstrom has been with the office since November.

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She attributed part of the caseload to her role in the office. More cases are going to court or jury trials.

“When I showed up in November, nobody was making any deals with me,” she told the commissioners. “No one wanted to close criminal files with me. They didn’t like what I was offering.”

Kingstrom instituted a policy as county attorney to take cases to court when defendants are not willing to plead guilty to the highest charge in the complaint. It allows for some exceptions, such as for cases involving victims who are minors.

Kingstrom indicated that the pace of closing files appears to be improving as defense attorneys and defendants come to terms with the new approach. She said the office was able to close 43 files last month.

She emphasized that the large workload is as much a matter of the severity of the cases as it is the volume. She noted the office is handling a number of big cases, including homicides and first-degree drug cases.

The number of big cases is high in comparison to what she has experienced when working in other rural counties.

“It is also kind of a product of the environment we’ve created,” she said.

The workload is also significant because many of the cases include multiple victims, including some who have experienced very serious harm, she said.

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The office is also being more aggressive in its policies on when to file charges.

She said the office previously did not file charges when convicted sexual predators did not register cellphones with internet access or their vehicles with law enforcement as required by the terms of their sentences. Now, however, the office is filing charges when it learns of these and other other alleged violations.

She said the office filed 10 predatory offender violations last month, which she acknowledged adds to the backlog in the office.

Kingstrom said that in the past, the office has not always handled new files brought to it by law enforcement in a timely manner. She is working to improve that.

There are currently 96 pending cases which she and her assistant need to review or investigate further to make decisions on whether to file charges.

Despite the workload, Kingstrom told the commissioners she remains resolute in taking cases to trial. The court schedule for new trials in the county is filled currently until August because of the caseload.

“That’s fine, that’s the nature of the beast,” she said. “Have to flush it out, kind of like severing the past. Whole new lifestyle change.”

And, she made clear that she wants the message about the new approach to be heard by would-be offenders.

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“You don’t get to do drugs in Renville County and just go home. That’s not how it works.”

There is help coming for the office.

Kingstrom said two candidates are being interviewed for the vacancy created by the recent retirement. She was encouraged that the office received the applications during a time when there are more attorney positions open than there are available candidates in the state.

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoors reporter for the West Central Tribune.
He has been a reporter with the West Central Tribune since 1993.

Cherveny can be reached via email at tcherveny@wctrib.com or by phone at 320-214-4335.
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