Judge James Michaud granted the wishes of shooting victim Kathryn Oliver’s family Wednesday by sentencing George Bondurant to 10 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter.
The term is fixed, meaning Bondurant cannot earn early release.
The victory was bittersweet for Oliver’s siblings and parents, however, who had hoped Bondurant would be tried on murder charges.
Bondurant, 22, was accused of killing Oliver, the 34-year-old mother of three, following an argument the morning of Feb. 12 in the home of his parents. He and Oliver were living there at the time.
Bondurant told authorities that Oliver had shot herself, but he was arrested a month later after an autopsy and other evidence ruled out suicide.
The charge was reduced to involuntary manslaughter in August when Bondurant entered a guilty plea as part of a plea agreement.
Oliver’s family members were outraged when they heard of the plea agreement, which they claim they learned of through newspaper reports.
“It’s as if her life meant nothing,” Oliver’s mother, Brenda Haupert, wrote to the judge.
Bonner County Prosecutor Phil Robinson explained at the sentencing that his office is convinced that Bondurant shot Oliver, but two independent reviews of the forensic evidence indicated that the case wasn’t as strong as they originally had thought.
Because there were no witnesses to Oliver’s death other than Bondurant and the couple’s infant son, “the people in our office were dependent upon conclusive scientific forensic evidence,” Robinson said.
Family members of Bondurant and Oliver packed the courtroom Wednesday. Oliver’s family wore buttons with her photo and the words, “Help stop domestic violence.”
Two Bonner County Sheriff’s deputies and three bailiffs guarded the packed courtroom in case emotions between the two families turned violent.
Oliver’s father, stepfather, brothers and a sister addressed Michaud, asking for the stiffest sentence he could impose - a fixed 10 years in prison.
“The pain I feel is so intense I could tear George Bondurant to shreds,” Oliver’s father wrote to Michaud in a letter that was read aloud by one of her brothers.
Sue Bonner, one of Oliver’s sisters, read a letter that Oliver wrote to herself, promising herself that she would leave Bondurant.
“He will never slam my head into the door or slap me ever again,” she read.
Oliver had called Bonner asking for a ride away from Bondurant’s house the day before her death. Bonner told Michaud she decided not to pick her up, because she resented being called only when Oliver needed something.
“All she asked for was a ride for her and her baby, and I was not there for her,” Bonner said through tears. “If I would have picked her up that night, she would still be here with us today.”
The sentencing began with the playing of the 911 tape from the morning of Oliver’s death. The recording is of Bondurant begging the emergency workers to hurry to the house as he held the dying Oliver in his arms.
“Somebody help me please,” he cried. “Oh, God no.”
Defense attorney Dan Featherston submitted the tape as the “most convincing piece of evidence that Mr. Bondurant did not pull the trigger.”
Featherston went on to suggest that Oliver killed herself because of her involvement with methamphetamine, and that Bondurant was willing to accept responsibility for her death because he supplied her with the drug.
At Bondurant’s preliminary hearing, at least two experts testified that Oliver could not have shot herself. Dr. George Lindholm, a forensic pathologist from Spokane, testified that the nature of the gunshot wound indicated that Oliver could not have shot herself.
A ballistics expert also testified that the gun had to be at least two feet away from Oliver when it was shot. But upon review, other experts questioned some of those conclusions.
The couple had a history of domestic violence, and Oliver’s mother wrote to Michaud that she had witnessed Bondurant abusing her daughter.
Police reports indicated that Bondurant had threatened to kill Oliver last fall. He was arrested a year ago for domestic battery, after which he agreed to have no contact with Oliver.
Featherston tried to submit evidence that Oliver was really the aggressive one and compared her criminal history with Bondurant’s, which was less lengthy.
Michaud said he refused to determine the sentence on whether Bondurant actually pulled the trigger or not.
“To do that would be speculative,” he said.
Michaud also tried to explain the purpose of plea agreements, in response to the letters and comments opposed to this one.
“Without plea bargaining, the system would not function,” he said, mentioning that five of six recent Bonner County trials ended in a hung jury. “If you view plea bargaining as an evil, it’s an absolutely necessary evil.”