Montana Judge Tosses Plea Deal, Citing Barkus Case

By Beacon Staff

MISSOULA – A judge has thrown out a plea agreement that called for prison time for a 19-year-old Native American on a criminal endangerment charge, saying he should receive a deferred sentence like a former state senator did last month for a similar offense.

“The state of Montana needs to treat defendants more or less equally and not give old, rich guys breaks and with young, poor Indians, whack ’em,” District Judge Dusty Deschamps said Tuesday.

Missoula County prosecutors had recommended a 10-year prison term, with some time suspended, for a crash last spring in which Arthur Matt’s car crossed the center line of U.S. 93 and hit a semitrailer. Court records say neither the driver of the semi nor Matt’s passenger was seriously hurt.

“I’ve been troubled by this plea agreement,” Deschamps said, noting the felony would remain on Matt’s record.

Instead, Deschamps imposed a six-year deferred sentence and ordered Matt to pay more than $37,000 in restitution and complete his general equivalency diploma. The judge said if Matt paid the restitution before his sentence is finished, he could apply to have it cut in half. Barkus’ plea agreement involved a similar arrangement.

The new sentence, Deschamps said, “conforms with justice.”

Deschamps didn’t mention former Sen. Greg Barkus of Kalispell by name, but the Missoulian reports the judge clearly referred to Barkus’ four-year deferred sentence for criminal endangerment. Barkus had crashed his boat into the shore of Flathead Lake after a night of drinking in August 2009. The crash injured all five on board, including U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, and left one of Rehberg’s staffers in a coma for more than a week.

Prosecutors had reached an even better deal for Barkus — a three-year deferred sentence with $4,000 in fines. District Judge John McKeon rejected the plea agreement Jan. 20 and gave Barkus, 64, the option of accepting a four-year deferred sentence with $29,000 in fines or withdrawing his guilty plea.

Under Barkus’ deferred sentence, the conviction can be removed from his record.

“I always thought deferred sentences were for young people, not for relatively elderly, wealthy state senators,” Deschamps said. He then asked Deputy County Attorney Shawn Thomas what the state thought.

Thomas said he couldn’t speak for Deputy County Attorney Patricia Bower, who handled the case.

The judge noted both Matt and the senator had similar criminal backgrounds. Matt was convicted of juvenile DUI and a misdemeanor assault charge. The senator had a 2004 arrest for DUI but pleaded guilty to reckless driving. Barkus also has two speeding tickets, a stop sign violation and a violation for operating a motor vehicle with expired registration.

Deschamps asked why Matt shouldn’t get a deferred sentence. “He’s got no prior felonies. He’s got the rest of his life in front of him. He seems like the classic case” for which deferred sentences were designed.

Matt told the judge he was sorry. “I can make this right and I don’t want to mess up anymore,” he said.

But Deschamps also cautioned Matt against getting in further trouble.

“If you go out and fail, I can bring you back in and I can whack you,” Deschamps said. “This isn’t some screaming deal you should go dancing out of the courthouse with.”

Carla Matt began crying when she realized her son wasn’t going to prison. And she was still crying after the sentencing hearing was over.

“He has a shot at being a strong man,” she said.

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