A woman who killed two children and a young man in a drunken driving accident will spend a year in jail, a judge ordered Friday.
But as jail officials quickly led Janice Hess away, a tearful and angry silence settled over her victims’ family members.
“She gets a year in jail and then gets to go home to her family,” said a distraught Milton Nomee, whose two grandchildren died in the accident. “We have to go home now and we still don’t have anything. My grandchildren are still gone. How can I say anything is fair anymore?”
Hess, of Moscow, Idaho, pleaded guilty to three counts of vehicular manslaughter in the deaths of 18-month-old Amadee Nomee, 5-year-old Justina Nomee and Howard Monhatwa, 25.
Emotions have run high since the December 1993 accident, not only because of the deaths but also because of racial tensions.
Hess is white while the three victims were Native American.
Victims’ family members believe they have been discriminated against. Representatives of several tribes filled the small Kootenai County Jail courtroom to support them during the sentencing hearing.
Hess, an admitted alcoholic, testified that she drank about six glasses of wine at her Moscow home before she got in her Audi and headed north on U.S. Highway 95 the evening of Dec. 3, 1993.
Near Plummer, Idaho, she crossed a solid yellow line and rammed head-on into the car Howard Monhatwa was driving, killing him and his two young passengers.
Relatives of the victims pleaded with First District Court Judge James Michaud to impose a stiff sentence.
“It turned a once-happy family into a bunch of trees - the only time you can hear them is when the wind passes by,” said a tearful Calvin Nomee. “It’s taken a family that loved so much and locked them in a dark room.”
“I want my baby,” cried Marcella Monhatwa Nomee on the witness stand. On the night of the accident, she came upon the wreckage where both her only daughter, Justina, and her husband lay dead. “I can never love again. That’s what she (Hess) stole from me.” Hess, her husband and 13-year-old daughter asked the judge for leniency.
Michael Hess talked about how his wife of 20 years has struggled for several years with alcoholism and depression.
He said his wife had relapsed into drinking the week before the accident when the family had to put their dog to sleep.
“I do want to say to all of them I am sorry,” Janice Hess said of the victims’ relatives. “When I see children the ages of Justina and Amadee I just always think about them. I wish there was something I could do to make it better.”
Last December, Hess agreed to plead guilty to the three vehicular homicide charges. The maximum sentence for those crimes is 30 years in prison.
But according to the plea agreement, Hess would be allowed to take back that guilty plea if the judge indicated he was going to sentence her to prison time as opposed to time in the county jail.
“My family got sentenced to death, they didn’t have a choice, why should she?” said Marcella Monhatwa Nomee.
“If you give her that choice all you’re doing is slapping my family,” said Calvin Nomee.
Kootenai County Prosector Bill Douglas said his office worked out that agreement to prevent the victims’ relatives from going through a lengthy trial in which the jury might give Hess the same short sentence or set her free.
Family members also told the judge they were angry that Hess was never arrested after the accident, saying they felt a Native American would have been immediately put in jail in similar circumstances.
Phillip Nomee said the family felt as though the case has taken an unusually long amount of time to make it through the court system.
“I know if I had done this, because of who I am and what I am, I would be pushed through the system,” he said.
Michaud tried to assure family members that it was not because of racism that the case had taken so long. Instead, he said the system was purposely tedious and slow to ensure justice.
James Siebe, Hess’s attorney, pointed out there was not enough proof that Hess had been drinking on the night of the accident for officers to arrest her.
Michaud said he decided on the sentence after weighing the serious nature of the crime against Hess’s upstanding role in the community and lack of any prior record.
Hess will also spend 10 years on probation, during which time she is not allowed to drink alcohol. She must attend counseling and must submit to alcohol and drug tests.
If she violates her probation, she could face more jail time.