Hearing That Drew Parallels to Barkus Case Slammed

By Beacon Staff

MISSOULA – A Missoula County prosecutor says a sentencing last week that drew parallels to a Flathead County case involving a former state senator made unfair implications about the Missoula County Attorney’s Office.

District Judge Dusty Deschamps gave 19-year-old Native American Arthur Matt a six-year deferred sentence Feb. 15 and ordered him to pay more than $37,000 restitution on a charge of criminal endangerment, saying the sentence should be like the one the former state senator received for a similar offense.

Deschamps said at the sentencing hearing that “the state of Montana needs to treat defendants more or less equally and not give old rich guys breaks and with younger poor Indians, whack ’em.”

Missoula County prosecutors had recommended a five-year Department of Corrections sentence, with two years suspended, for a crash last spring in which 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.

On Tuesday, Chief Deputy County Attorney Kirsten Pabst LaCroix told the Missoulian “the implication that Mr. Matt was being treated differently because he is Native American is so wrong and offensive and counter-productive.”

“The sentence recommendation by the State had nothing to do with race and had everything to do with our ongoing attempts to reduce DUI-related fatalities, protect innocent drivers and pedestrians in our community and rehabilitate Mr. Matt,” she wrote in an earlier e-mail to the newspaper. “We value and uphold the civil rights of all of our citizens, innocent and guilty alike.”

Deschamps, who declined to comment, never mentioned former Republican state Sen. Greg Barkus of Kalispell by name during Matt’s sentencing, but his comments clearly referenced the sentence given to the lawmaker in November in Flathead County District Court.

Barkus wrecked his boat on the rocks of Flathead Lake after a night of drinking in August 2009. The crash injured all five aboard, including U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, and left one of Rehberg’s staffers in a coma for more than a week.

The 64-year-old Barkus pleaded no contest to criminal endangerment — the same charge faced by Matt — and received a four-year deferred sentence, a year more than recommended.

“I always thought deferred sentences were for young people, not for relatively elderly wealthy state senators,” Deschamps said when sentencing Matt.

LaCroix said Tuesday her office doesn’t have any control over what is brought up in other jurisdictions, such as in Flathead County.

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