When does a crime constitute a “hate” crime? Obviously, prosecutors don’t try many “love” crimes, certainly not in the case of Kathryn “Kitty” Sisler, a white woman who, in the early morning hours of April 8, 1999, got into a drunken altercation outside of Stockman’s Bar in Missoula with Virginia “Mena” Limpy, a Native American student from the University of Montana, and stabbed and slashed her 11 times with a borrowed pocket knife. Sisler, who pled guilty to felony assault, is scheduled to be sentenced the week of May 8 for the attack.
But members of Missoula’s Native American community are up in arms about a plea agreement that reduced the charges from aggravated assault, saying that a sentence of 10 years probation with no jail time, in return for Sisler testifying against another defendant in the case, Jayme Todd Froelich, is not sufficient justice for a violent act that easily could have taken Limpy’s life. (Under Montana law, the judge can impose a stiffer penalty than the one agreed upon in a plea bargain.)
On Monday, representatives from Indian People’s Action and the Native American community held a demonstration outside the Missoula County Courthouse, saying that this is just the latest example of the kind of institutional racism that Native Americans experience every day when they deal with police officers and the legal system in Missoula and throughout Montana.
“I think that if the racial tables had been turned, this would have been a very different case,” says Eldena Bear Don’t Walk, a Native American UM law student who took part in Monday’s rally.
Carrying signs that read, “11 stab wounds-10 years probation. What justice?” and “Stab me once, I could die. Stab me 11 times, it’s only felony assault,” Bear Don’t Walk and others argued that Sisler should have been charged under the Montana statute involving “Malicious Intimidation or Harassment Relating to Civil or Human Rights,” more commonly known as the hate crime statute. According to Limpy, Sisler used anti-Indian epithets during her attack.
“When we leave the reservation, we’re told that we have to live in two worlds,” said Jim Kipp, a Native American UM graduate student who joined Monday’s demonstration. “Now we’re living in a white world in Missoula and they have laws that will protect our civil rights. When our rights are being violated, we look to the court system for justice. Now they’re turning their backs on us, too.”
Of course, assessing whether a crime was racially motivated or not is a treacherous tightrope to walk, and opinions on the matter can differ sharply depending upon where you stand on the racial divide.
According to Sisler’s attorney, Milton Datsopoulos, there were never any grounds for invoking the hate crime statute, and he says that both he and his client are very much distressed that race has now become an issue in this case.
“I have done massive investigation on this case, and I can tell you unequivocally, there is no element of racism that was a factor in the fight, the assault or the proposed resolution of this case,” said Datsopoulos. “I think it’s unfortunate that the racial factor is being interjected here, because it should really have no role in this case.”
Kirsten LaCroix of the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, who prosecuted the case and negotiated the plea agreement, agreed, saying that there were not enough facts to support the inclusion of the hate crime statute.
In a written statement released Monday afternoon, LaCroix wrote: “The Missoula County Attorney’s Office examines each investigation carefully on a case-by-case basis in making charging, tactical and negotiating decisions. None of those decisions are based upon the race, the gender, or the affiliations of any of the people involved. [To] say otherwise ignores the public service nature of the prosecutor’s job and jeopardizes the efforts we have all made toward making Missoula a better place for our families.”
Moreover, as LaCroix emphasizes, the facts in this case are murky at best, since many of the witnesses were severely intoxicated and provided conflicting testimony as to what occurred. Both LaCroix and Datsopoulos add that except for some minor traffic violations, this was Sisler’s first serious offense, and Sisler cooperated fully with the investigation.
Members of IPA do acknowledge the efforts made by the Missoula Police Department and Police Chief Pete Lawrenson in raising the sensitivity of police officers to Indian concerns, as well as in getting a Native American police officer on the force. Nevertheless, among Monday’s demonstrators, who numbered no more than two dozen, there was no shortage of stories like Limpy’s, ranging from the day-to-day indignities of being served last in restaurants and suspiciously eyeballed in stores, to more serious acts of harassment, intimidation and assault.
For Limpy herself, whose physical scars have healed but whose psychological scars are all too obvious, she doesn’t see her case as out of the ordinary. “This happens all the time,” says Limpy. “I’m just another Indian that’s being overlooked.”