John Liebenstein

Deputy Sheriff John Warren Liebenstein | Rice County Sheriff's Department, Minnesota

Victim: Deputy John Liebenstein

Murderer: Timothy Chambers, 17

Crime date: May 3, 1996



Deputy John Liebenstein was killed by a vehicle that rammed his patrol car at 90 mph during a pursuit. Deputy Liebenstein was blocking an interstate ramp so the car, which was being driven by a 17-year-old, could not exit the interstate. The juvenile was taken into custody after being treated at a local hospital. He was convicted of first-degree murder and was given a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Deputy Liebenstein had served with the agency for 9 years. He was survived by his wife and three children.





Rice CountyGilbert, J.
 State of Minnesota,Respondent,vs.Timothy Patrick Chambers,Appellant.

Filed: March 4, 1999
Office of Appellate Courts


GILBERT, Justice.

This case involves a first-degree murder conviction resulting from a motor vehicle collision in which a Rice County Sheriff’s Deputy was killed. The appellant, Timothy Patrick Chambers, asserts that seven different trial court rulings were erroneous and prejudicial, challenges the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without parole, and asserts that the evidence was insufficient to support the first-degree murder conviction. We affirm the conviction and sentence.

On May 3, 1996, 17-year-old Chambers walked to the Priordale Mall to fill out a job application. As he was leaving the mall at about 12:30 p.m., Chambers saw a red 1991 Lincoln Town Car in the parking lot with the keys inside. Chambers took the Lincoln, which the owner reported stolen shortly after 12:30 p.m.

Soon thereafter, Deputy Donald Buchan of the Scott County Sheriff’s Department saw and stopped Chambers, who was driving the stolen Lincoln. However, as Deputy Buchan started to get out of his vehicle, Chambers ran the Lincoln into Deputy Buchan’s squad car and drove away. Deputy Buchan began pursuing Chambers and for a brief period the two vehicles “bounc[ed] off of each other.” Chambers was then able to pull ahead of the squad car and Deputy Buchan continued his pursuit.

Despite the fact that several different police departments assisted in the pursuit, Chambers continued to flee, running numerous red traffic lights and hitting a truck that had been stopped at an intersection. Chambers then proceeded south on I-35, repeatedly swerving into the median and between vehicles. Throughout much of the 30-mile pursuit, Chambers was traveling at speeds of 90 to 110 miles per hour.

Hearing about the pursuit on his police radio, Deputy John Liebenstein of the Rice County Sheriff’s Department decided to set up a roadblock at the top of the Rice County Road 1 exit ramp, only 2 miles from his home. Deputy Liebenstein informed the dispatcher of his intent and placed his unmarked squad car at the top of the exit ramp, leaving a space of over 12 feet for other vehicles to go around the squad car.

Near the border of Rice and Dakota Counties, two semi-truck drivers attempted to slow Chambers, blocking both lanes of traffic while traveling under the posted speed limit. Chambers drove into the median and around the trucks. Upon getting in front of the trucks, Chambers quickly veered to the right and proceeded up the Rice County Road 1 exit ramp, where Deputy Liebenstein had just finished setting up the roadblock.

Witnesses watched the Lincoln accelerate up the ramp and saw Chambers looking straight ahead. At the top of the ramp, the Lincoln collided with Deputy Liebenstein’s squad car. Despite the 12-foot space available for Chambers to steer around the squad car, the Lincoln hit the passenger’s side of the squad car directly between the front and rear wheels. At the time of impact, Deputy Liebenstein was either seated in the squad car or standing outside of the squad car leaning into it. He was killed instantly and his body was found approximately 70 feet from the point of the impact.

The investigation revealed no attempts by Chambers to slow down, stop, or steer to avoid the collision. After the collision, the wheels of the Lincoln were locked into a straightforward position, and there was no evidence that the brake lights were on at the time of the crash. The Lincoln, traveling between 93 and 98 miles per hour at the time of impact, left no skid marks.

Chambers was charged with first-degree murder of a peace officer, Minn. Stat. § 609.185(4) (1998), second-degree felony murder, Minn. Stat. § 609.19, subd. 2(1) (1998), fleeing a police officer resulting in death, Minn. Stat. § 609.487, subd. 4(a) (1998), and theft of a motor vehicle, Minn. Stat. 609.52, subd. 2(17) (1998). Pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 260.115 (1998), Chambers was automatically certified to stand trial as an adult.

At trial, the state introduced testimony of an individual who had been incarcerated with Chambers in the Steele County jail following the collision. This individual testified that Chambers said “he would go through anything to get away on that day.” He further testified that:

[Chambers said he had seen] a car blocking the ramp as he got – [sic] he made a decision that he wasn’t going to be stopped; he was going to go through that and continue, and he said “if the cop wanted to be a hero, he would die a hero.” * * * * [H]e said that before the accident he made eye contact with the person in the car and the person reacted like this. [Witness indicates by putting his arms up in front of his face.] * * * * He thought that was quite funny. He was laughing about it as he told me.

The witness described Chambers as being “flip” and “bragging about” the death of the deputy.

Prior to trial, the trial court heard several motions, some of which resulted in rulings that Chambers now asserts were erroneous. Chambers moved to change venue due to substantial pre-trial publicity from newspapers, radio, television and electronic media. Chambers’ concern was based on the overall news coverage, with special reference to seven stories and one editorial that appeared in the Northfield News and one article that appeared in the Faribault Daily News. All of these articles were published in 1996. There was also television coverage by the major metropolitan television stations at or about the time of the incident. Most of the reports were factual in nature, although some were not completely accurate. The reports included incorrect statements that Chambers was a high school dropout with over 20 prior arrests and a statement that Deputy Liebenstein was seated inside his squad car at the time of the collision, a fact that was greatly disputed at trial. The trial court denied Chambers’ change of venue motion but granted the defense leave to renew its motion following voir dire if the defense was not satisfied with the outcome of jury selection.

The jury selection commenced approximately 1 year after this incident. There were extensive written questions submitted to each juror as well as regular voir dire. The trial court called 115 jurors and excused 54 of them for cause. During voir dire, jurors were questioned extensively regarding their exposure to information about the case. Only one juror to whom the defense objected was seated as a juror and the defense did not renew its venue motion. Although Chambers fails to allege any actual prejudice, he now asserts that a presumption of prejudice exists and that the trial court abused its discretion in refusing to grant a change of venue.

At a two-day motion hearing, the trial court heard several additional motions. The defense made a motion in limine to be permitted to examine potential jurors regarding the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of release for a first-degree murder conviction. The trial court denied this motion, reasoning that sentencing was the province of the court rather than the jury. Chambers claims that this denial impeded his right to an impartial jury and urges this court to adopt a new rule permitting examination of jurors regarding sentencing in first-degree murder cases.

The defense also objected to the trial court requiring Chambers to wear leg restraints when he appeared in court. The restraints were worn under his trousers and may have been undetected by the jury. The trial court denied the defense’s motion to remove the restraints, citing concern regarding flight based on Chambers’ past history of attempts to flee police. Chambers asserts that requiring him to appear before the jury in restraints was unwarranted and thus entitles him to a new trial.

At the motion hearing, Chambers also sought permission to introduce at trial evidence of police pursuit policies, including policies of “various jurisdictions through which the police pursuit traveled,” and evidence that Deputy Liebenstein failed to follow the Rice County Sheriff’s Department’s policies in setting up the roadblock. The defense asserted that this evidence was relevant to Chambers’ intent to kill and to whether Deputy Liebenstein was engaged in the performance of official duties, both of which are elements of first-degree murder under Minn. Stat. § 609.185(4). The trial court excluded this evidence and Chambers now asserts that this exclusion was an abuse of the trial court’s discretion.

At trial, and over the defense’s objection, the court made an additional evidentiary ruling that Chambers now asserts was erroneous. The trial court allowed the state to introduce evidence of some of Chambers’ prior bad acts under Minn. R. Evid. 404(b). This evidence was admitted through the testimony of two witnesses. Kyle Koch, a friend of Chambers, testified that in August or September of 1995, Chambers told him that if he were ever involved with police, “he would do anything he could to get away.” Koch also testified that in October 1995, he was a passenger in a stolen vehicle driven by Chambers. When police attempted to stop the vehicle, Chambers drove the vehicle through a ditch and across a field at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour. Furthermore, Scott County Police Officer John Niemann testified that in October 1995, Chambers told him that “he still wasn’t afraid of law enforcement” and that “if he ever became involved in a chase he would ram the police off the road to get away.” Niemann also testified that following Chambers’ apprehension for a January 1995 vehicle theft, Chambers stated that “he was not afraid of law enforcement and that he would take [an officer] out if he had to get away.” The trial court allowed the testimony to show intent and absence of mistake or accident under Minn. R. Evid. 404(b). Chambers asserts that the testimony was unfairly prejudicial and thus the trial court erred in its admission.

The defense requested that the court instruct the jury on the lesser-included offenses of third-degree murder, second-degree manslaughter, and criminal vehicular homicide. The trial court instructed the jury on each of the charged offenses and on the lesser-included offense of third-degree murder, but refused to instruct the jury on second-degree manslaughter and criminal vehicular homicide. The jury returned a verdict of guilty for each charged offense, but did not return a verdict on the lesser-included offense of third-degree murder. The defense now asserts that the failure to instruct on the two lesser-included offenses was prejudicial error.

Following a full trial that spanned nearly three weeks, the jury found Chambers guilty of first-degree murder of a peace officer engaged in official duties, second-degree felony murder, fleeing a peace officer resulting in death, and theft of a motor vehicle. The trial court sentenced Chambers under the first-degree murder conviction, which is classified as a heinous crime and carries a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of release. Minn. Stat. § 609.184, subd. 2(1) (1996) (repealed and recodified at Minn. Stat. § 609.106, subd. 2(1) (1998)). In addition to his multiple assignments of error regarding the conviction, Chambers also challenges his sentence as cruel or unusual in violation of the United States and Minnesota Constitutions, and asserts that the trial court erred in refusing to exercise its equitable powers to sentence Chambers under the second-degree murder conviction instead of the first-degree murder conviction.

Life term affirmed for man who killed Rice County deputy

State court says U.S. Supreme Court ruling not retroactive. 

By Pat Pheifer Star Tribune JUNE 6, 2013

The Minnesota Supreme Court ended any hopes of freedom for convicted murderer Timothy P. Chambers when it affirmed his conviction and life sentence this week.

Chambers, now 34, has spent almost half of his life in the state prison system. He was 17 in 1996 when he stole a car at a Prior Lake mall, led police on a 35-mile high-speed chase and ultimately slammed into an unmarked squad car at the top of an exit ramp, killing Rice County sheriff’s deputy John Liebenstein, who was behind the wheel.

A Rice County jury decided that Chambers intentionally killed the deputy and convicted him of first-degree murder. The judge gave him Minnesota’s mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that the Eighth Amendment forbids a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders, saying it violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Chambers was one of seven men in prison in Minnesota who found a new hope, albeit a long shot, in that ruling.

The state’s highest court said Wednesday, however, that the ruling from the nation’s highest court does not apply retroactively to Chambers’ appeal, thus his sentence stands.

Justice Paul H. Anderson dissented sharply from his colleagues, and Justice Alan Page joined in the dissent.

“The Supreme Court has apprised us of the fact that [Chambers’] sentence … is tantamount to a death sentence,” Anderson wrote. “We must not only listen to, but we must respond appropriately to the message the Supreme Court has sent to us. Unfortunately, with the decision rendered by the majority today, we have failed to do so.”

It was unclear whether the others in Minnesota prisons who received mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole when they were juveniles have appealed their sentences to the state Supreme Court.

Man serving life in Rice County deputy death granted possibility of supervised release