March 21, 1995 in Idaho

Indians Claim Deadly Driver Got Off Easy The Victims’ Family Members And Others Are Making Accusations Of Racism, Mismanagement And Judicial Bungling

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Three Native Americans are dead. Their killer, a well-to-do white woman, has now spent her 32nd day behind bars. Three hundred and thirty-three are left to go.

But the furor surrounding Janice Hess, a drunken driver convicted of three counts of vehicular manslaughter, has not subsided.

The victims’ family members and others are making accusations of racism, mismanagement and judicial bungling. Hess’ one-year sentence has caused anger and dismay, and the county prosecutor admits he wishes he’d taken the case to trial. At least one lawsuit has been filed and others may follow.

Caught up in the fray are:

Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas, criticized for signing a plea bargain that would land Hess in jail for only a year.

Judge Jim Michaud, who OK’d the plea agreement and handed down what many consider a light sentence.

The Idaho State Police, which is accused of mishandling the accident scene and one of the bodies.

A national Native American group which has claimed racism infected this case from the accident through the sentencing.

Dennis Banks of the American Indian Movement and family members say the case would have gone differently if the victims were white.

“Everybody just pushed through this thing like they thought ‘It’s Indians, let’s get this over with and get it out of the way,”’ said Milton Nomee, grandfather of the two small children who died in the accident.

But is it racism? No, say the police, prosecutor and judge. Even the Nomees’ attorney says he doubts racism is at the root of the problem.

“There are a lot of people in this case who tried to do the right thing,” Douglas said. “Racism had no part in the investigation, prosecution or sentencing.”

If so, then how did such a black cloud wrap itself around this case? Does a year in jail for killing three people amount to racism or is that just the way Idaho law works?

“It’s been an unusual case the whole way through,” said Fred Gabourie, attorney for the relatives. “It always seems to be a screw-up here, an overlook there. And the family feels it’s racial - this case is so bizarre that this is their way to explain it.”

Drinking and Driving

On Dec. 3, 1993, Janice Hess drank six glasses of wine at her Moscow home, stepped into her Audi and drove north on U.S. Highway 95.

Near Plummer, Idaho, she crossed a solid yellow line and rammed head-on into the car Howard Monhatwa, 25, was driving. She killed him, 18-month-old Amadee Nomee and 5-year-old Justina Nomee.

It is from this point that the seed of racism - imagined or real - began to bloom.

“It’s just another Indian, let’s get this over with and go home,” an emergency worker is rumored to have said at the accident scene.

There’s no proof the comment ever was made, but the rumor has flourished among relatives and friends of the victims.

The way the accident was handled fueled the hearsay.

A lawsuit filed this month by Howard Monhatwa’s wife, Marcella, accuses ISP of leaving his body hanging out of the mangled car for five hours.

Rather than call a hearse for Monhatwa’s body, ISP officers had it put in the back seat of his car, which was then towed.

Washington State Patrol Capt. Jim LaMunyon said it’s not unusual for accident victims’ bodies to be left at the scene for long periods of time.

“We investigate those accidents the same way we would a homicide,” he said. But he said he can’t recall WSP ever hauling a body away in a wrecked car.

“The family is unable to identify why their husband and son and daughter has been treated different,” said ISP Capt. Ralph Powell. “The circumstances around this situation were different. It wasn’t racially motivated at all.”

Powell said that, because of a miscommunication, his officers believed they didn’t have the right equipment to remove Monhatwa’s body from the wreckage.

So, the officers sent the hearse away. Once they finally realized Monhatwa’s body could be extracted it was too late.

Rather than wait for the hearse to come back, Powell said the officers decided to put the body in the back of the car and have it towed immediately.

“They made a bold decision to move the body so other family members wouldn’t have to bear to see this sight any longer.”

Still, Powell admits the decision was a bad one.

But he also insists, “I know my officers, this was not racism. I know what I know in my heart.”

Finger pointing

Almost a year after the accident, Janice Hess pleaded guilty to three counts of vehicular manslaughter - managing to avoid a jury trial and time in the state pen.

She might have faced 30 years behind bars. But Hess’ attorney worked out a deal with prosecutor Bill Douglas.

Douglas says he agreed to the bargain for the family’s sake. But the victims’ family and the American Indian Movement are lambasting Douglas for being too lenient.

“I think Bill Douglas soft-soaped it,” said Gabourie, the family’s attorney. “I believe he sold this case down the river a little bit.”

Under the agreement, Janice Hess pleaded guilty, with the option of taking back her plea if the judge indicated she’d get more than a year in jail.

“I don’t understand when you kill three people how you can tell a judge and the court ‘If I don’t get six months in a minimum security, I’m going to plead not guilty,”’ said Milton Nomee.

But Douglas insists he had good reason to chose the plea bargain over a trial and says he even had the family’s blessing.

“I wanted to deprive the defense of putting Howard Monhatwa and the good officers of the ISP on trial,” Douglas said.

Court records show that Howard Monhatwa tested positive for marijuana use. Douglas said Monhatwa’s family was worried his name would be dragged through the mud during a trial.

But Milton Nomee insists, “I told him that doesn’t matter. (Monhatwa) didn’t cross the line (in the road). None of the family was worried about that.”

Douglas also says three problems might have led to an acquittal at trial: a question of whether ISP acted legally when it drew Hess’ blood for an alcohol test; ISP’s failure to videotape the accident scene; and a misplaced videotape of an interview between an ISP officer and Hess.

But both ISP Capt. Powell and Fred Gabourie insist the case was winnable in court. Accident reconstruction clearly showed it was Hess who crossed into oncoming traffic, not Monhatwa.

Court records show that Judge James Michaud ruled that Hess’ blood was drawn legally, and tested well over the legal alcohol limit.

Capt. Powell said it doesn’t matter that no videotape was taken at the scene. Officers snapped reams of still photographs of the accident.

Powell also says his officers did not lose that interview tape. He said they sent it to the prosecutor’s office, where it turned up missing.

“I wish that I had taken this case to trial,” admits Bill Douglas, who says he’s tired of accusations of racism. He has served five years on the board of the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, which fights racism.

Still, he believes even with a trial the sentence would have been the same.

Sentencing patterns

To the Nomee family, “The sentence was the final blow, the ultimate punch in the stomach,” Gabourie said.

Janice Hess will serve a year in the county jail. During the last three months she will go free daily to go to work.

After that she will spend 10 years on probation, during which time not a drop of alcohol is to pass her lips.

The fact is, it’s not all that unusual for a drunken driver to get a short time in jail for vehicular manslaughter in Kootenai County.

In September 1994, Greg Johnston of Post Falls received 180 days in a boot camp for the same offense. In 1988, a Kootenai County judge sentenced a black man named Greg Dial to 10 days in jail and 360 hours of community service in another vehicular manslaughter case.

Some members of Mothers Against Drunk Driving say the problem in the Hess case isn’t so much about racism as it is about a system that’s too weak on drunken drivers.

“It makes me sick when they have that kind of sentencing, but I would be real leery to say it’s racism,” said Bonnie West, president of the Spokane chapter of MADD. “We see light sentences all the time. ”

Statistics put together by MADD in Boise show that stiffer sentences do happen.

A man in Ada County was sentenced to at least two years in prison for two counts of vehicular manslaughter in 1992. A woman in Elmore County was sentenced to at least five years for one count of vehicular manslaughter in 1994.

Dr. John Miller, an emergency room physician, got 10 years in prison for killing two teenage girls near Elmo, Mont.

“Of all the kinds of cases I think there is less uniformity in these kinds,” said Roger Bourne, chief criminal deputy prosecutor in Ada County. “Oftentimes you’re not dealing with criminals in the sense of intending the consequences of their actions.”

Michaud knows. “It makes for very, very difficult cases for a judge to decide.”

Judges must weigh not only the crime, but the person’s background. Hess had no prior criminal record and had been seeking treatment for her alcohol problem. She did much volunteer work before the accident, including time with Hospice.

“In these cases they are often upstanding citizens in every other respect and didn’t mean to hurt anybody,” Bourne said. “That makes a difference.”

Miller got 10 years in part because he had several previous driving offenses, including two careless driving citations.

“For the most part, unless you’ve got a previous history, you don’t usually see that stiff a sentence,” said Kim Christopher, the Lake County attorney who prosecuted Miller.

If the public wants to see stricter sentences, then they need to ask the Legislature to enact sentencing guidelines like those in Washington, Michaud said.

Had Janice Hess been convicted in Washington, a judge would have been required to sentence her to 2 to 3 years in prison, said Steve Kinn, Spokane County deputy prosecutor.

Washington law says that a drunken driver with no criminal history will receive at least 31 months and no more than 41 months behind bars for killing someone.

But the convict also gets a third of that time off for good behavior.

All of this matters little to the family of the young man and small children who died.

Marcella Monhatwa says sadly, “There’s no law we can trust any more.”

Gabourie puts it this way: “Is Judge Michaud a racist? No way. Is Bill Douglas a racist? No way. Does it look like racism? Yes.

“Isn’t perception sometimes greater than reality?”


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