Despite a plea agreement reached in the case of a Missoula woman who pleaded guilty to stabbing another woman 11 times during a fight outside of Stockman’s Bar in April 1999, on Monday Missoula District Court Judge Douglas Harkin rejected the deal of a ten-year suspended sentence with no jail time, opting instead to follow a state probation officer’s recommendation that she serve at least two years. That sentence is on hold pending the defendant’s screening for eligibility in a community-based supervised custody program.
The case drew media attention earlier this year after the victim, Virginia Limpy, a Native American student then at the University of Montana, as well as members of Indian People’s Action (IPA), accused the Missoula County Attorney’s Office of “institutional racism” for charging the defendant with felony assault instead of attempted murder, as well as for recommending no jail time for the crime. According to Limpy, the defendant, Kathryn “Kitty” Sisler, called her an “Indian bitch” during the attack, in which Limpy received nearly lethal stab wounds. Limpy has since recovered from the physical injuries, though according to friends still suffers from the emotional trauma.
Limpy and IPA were also angered that the case was not prosecuted as a hate crime. But according to Kirsten LaCroix of the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, as well as Detective Rich Ochsner of the Missoula Police Department, the case did not reach the legal threshold for a hate crime since, according to Ochsner, the words were uttered “in the heat of battle.” Ochsner testified Monday that were it not for Sisler’s guilty plea and statements against another defendant in the attack, the case likely would have remained inactive.
Still, protesters were outside the Missoula County Courthouse Monday afternoon decrying what they say is unequal treatment for Native American defendants in the criminal justice system.
“This is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says IPA organizer Janet Robideau. “The message is that you can do whatever you want to a Native American and walk away with a slap on the wrist. Well, we’re not going to take it anymore.”
Robideau notes that while she is not accusing anyone in the Missoula County Attorney’s Office of being a racist, her office has compiled “numerous examples” over the past three years of non-Indian defendants receiving lighter sentences than Indian defendants for comparable crimes. “We challenge the County Attorney’s office to prove us wrong,” she says.
During Monday’s sentencing hearing, Sisler’s attorney, Milt Datsopoulos, called witnesses to testify that Sisler is a changed woman, a good mother, has several Native American friends and is not a racist. Among the witnesses was Sisler’s domestic partner, James Mack, who is African-American.
Later, Datsopoulos said it’s unfair that race has been interjected into this case and the sentencing process, saying, “It’s unfortunate that the Native American community picked this crime to depict as a hate crime, [since] that’s totally inaccurate and not supported by the facts.”