Prosecution of Pennington County's first hate crime stirs emotions, awareness

2009-07-15T23:00:00Z Prosecution of Pennington County's first hate crime stirs emotions, awarenessAndrea J. Cook, Journal staff Rapid City Journal
July 15, 2009 11:00 pm  • 

Veterans stood shoulder-to shoulder with young demonstrators who gathered Thursday on the steps of the Pennington County Courthouse affirming their commitment to racial equality in Rapid City.

As Pennington County's first prosecutions under South Dakota's hate crime statute move through the court system, many Native American's realize that their struggle for equality continues.

Next week, 7th Circuit Judge A.P. "Pete" Fuller is scheduled to accept guilty pleas from two 21-year-old women charged with malicious intimidation and harassment, along with multiple counts of simple assault for two alleged attacks on Native Americans that occurred within hours of each other in December. Jenna Gitzke and Miranda Sheldon each face up to two years in prison and a $4,000 fine

Pennington County State's Attorney Glenn Brenner said he refused to accept anything less than a felony conviction in this case.

Brenner said the goal is to "send out the message that we don't tolerate this behavior and we're going to go after them aggressively every time they occur."

Brenner is still working on a sentence request, but said it will have conditions attached. If a prison sentence is imposed, the women would be eligible for parole within a few months and be out from under the court's supervision.

"With a probationary sentence, we can change that to a term of years where we can watch these people and make sure that they get what they need," Brenner said.

Because Fuller will determine the future of the women, demonstrators carried posters asking him for justice. Others thanked law enforcement for its response and called for an end to racism.

As an elder, Madonna Thunder Hawk joined the demonstration to support the young people who are taking up the banner she carried in the 1960s.

"I am a product of the sixties," Thunder Hawk said. "We shook the world in our day on Indian rights for this area."

But things have not changed much in South Dakota in the past 40 years, especially in Rapid City, said Thunder Hawk.

"The frontier mentality is alive and well," she said.

Dressed in his green Army fatigue and wearing a black cap identifying him as a Vietnam-era veteran, Eldridge Grinnell held up a carefully lettered sign proclaiming "Our Native Nations Want to live in Peace and Dignity with All People in our Sacred Home Lands."

Grinnell has fought wars on two fronts. As a soldier, he fought for the United States to protect justice and freedom in other nations. He still fights the second war as a Native American citizen at home. "I find I have to fight for equality and justice and for our treaty rights," he said.

Grinnell has lived in Rapid City since 1962. The "No Dogs or Indians" signs from that time have come down, but racial prejudice still exists, he said.

Perhaps getting worse as evidenced by recent physical assaults and verbal assaults on Native Americans, said Grinnell. His son was one of several Native Americans who were shot at with BB guns and had urine thrown on them allegedly by a carload of teenagers in March. Grinnell is frustrated that the juveniles' case is cloaked in the secrecy of the juvenile court system.

Grinnell also is critical of the courts he calls biased against minorities. "The disparity in sentencing is outrageous."

Thursday's demonstrators stood where Theresa P. Janis was afraid to stand.

Janis, 47, was one of Gitzke and Sheldon's alleged December victims. Physically handicapped and suffering from a heart condition, Janis was tearful and still frightened by memories of the traffic incident.

Janis was driving a friend's children to the grocery store on that December night when Gitzke and Sheldon allegedly taunted her and the girls as they left Wal-Mart. The case claims the harassment escalated into a car chase as Janis tried to avoid a confrontation. The girls attempted to ram Janis' car and force it off the road.

"I was never so scared in my life," Janis said.

Even with a protection order in place, Janis said she is terrified that supporters of the women might seek revenge because she filed a complaint. Signing the complaint was something Janis said was necessary for her grandchildren and every child of mixed heritage.

Her son, Ryan Crawford, encouraged her to not back down. Crawford is a member of the Army's 101st Airborne Assault Attack division.

"He said, 'momma, you keep pushing it,'" Janis said. "'I fight for everybody's freedom, not just the Natives…everybody.'"

Although Janis still has nightmares about that night, she prays for Gitzke and Shelton.

"I don't want them to waste away in prison," Janis said. "I want them to take some classes to respect people."

Brenner said Janis and the other alleged victims in this case were brave and good to work with.

"It's a scary experience, but they recognized the importance and they were willing to help us through it," Brenner said.

Brenner said it's important that this case sends strong statement that "this isn't something we're going to sit back and allow to happen here. Anything short of getting the convictions and holding these people accountable takes us in the wrong direction."

Contact Andrea Cook at 394-8423 or andrea.cook@rapidcityjournal.com.

South Dakota's Hate Crime Statute

22-19B-1. Malicious intimidation or harassment-Felony. No person may maliciously and with the specific intent to intimidate or harass any person or specific group of persons because of that person's or group of persons' race, ethnicity, religion, ancestry, or national origin:

(1) Cause physical injury to another person; or

(2) Deface any real or personal property of another person; or

(3) Damage or destroy any real or personal property of another person; or

(4) Threaten, by word or act, to do the acts prohibited if there is reasonable cause to believe that any of the acts prohibited in subdivision (1), (2), or (3) of this section will occur.

A violation of this section is a Class 6 felony.

A Class 6 felony is punishable by up to two years in prison and/or a $4,000 fine.

Copyright 2015 Rapid City Journal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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