A Wanblee man was sentenced to 15 years in prison Wednesday for stabbing to death another man during a fight on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation last year. The judge decried the family disputes that led to the killing as part of an "endless" cycle of violence.
Leon Between Lodges, 34, earlier pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the killing of Leonard Sitting Up on May 27, 2016. He admitted stabbing the 22-year-old once in the chest, striking Sitting Up’s carotid artery, which supplies blood to the head.
He pleaded guilty also to assault with a dangerous weapon for stabbing Sitting Up’s companion, Layton Ashley.
In a self-described “unusual” recommendation, the federal prosecutor asked the court to sentence Between Lodges to 10 years for the murder though he was facing a maximum of 17-1/2 years. She asked for 10 years also for the attack on Ashley, to be served at the same time.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Poppen said there was “instigation” on the victims’ side, since Sitting Up, Ashley and two boys went to Between Lodges’ home in the early morning of May 27 and called him names. A video of the incident, Poppen said, showed Sitting Up’s group moving in on Between Lodges, who armed himself with a bat.
The situation was diffused, but apparently got reignited around 10 p.m. when the group drove back to the area and saw a log blocking the road. Testimonies at the Rapid City hearing showed two families — those of the defendant and the victims — who continually accused each other of misconduct and retaliatory actions.
That night, a fight broke out. Between Lodges got involved when he saw a relative on the ground, said his lawyer, Ellery Grey. Using a stiletto knife, he stabbed Sitting Up, who was wielding a bicycle chain and padlock “like brass knuckles.” Then he stabbed Layton in the back.
Sitting Up died despite emergency medical personnel’s attempts to resuscitate him. An aunt of his, who was driving the group’s vehicle that night, said Sitting Up “bled out in my back seat.” He had two young daughters.
Ashley “lived with survivor’s guilt,” his mother told the court, wondering why he survived when Sitting Up’s girls were left without a father. Ashley committed suicide in June.
The victims’ relatives and friends, who disagreed with the prosecutor's sentencing recommendation, asked U.S. District Court Chief Judge Jeffrey Viken to impose a life sentence.
Between Lodges, who read from a prepared statement, apologized for his crimes and said he acted in his family’s defense.
“I don’t expect you will accept my apology, but I’m sorry,” he said, between tears. “We, as men, should have handled it differently, by talking or something.”
Grey asked Viken for a lenient sentence, citing the misconduct on both sides, Between Lodges’ lack of a significant criminal record and his accepting responsibility for his offenses.
“This is endless … These disputes between families,” the judge said. “The next generation picks it up.
“This is exactly the kind of homicides that I’ve watched for 40 years,” Viken said, citing his experience as a prosecutor, defense lawyer and judge handling cases in Indian country.
Viken described the 10-year sentence recommendation for murder as "an extraordinary agreement," but said he didn’t think it was a just punishment for the crime. He sentenced Between Lodges to 15 years for Sitting Up’s killing and 10 years for Ashley’s stabbing, to be served at the same time. After being released from prison, Between Lodges will be on supervised release for five years.
He also ordered Between Lodges to pay $2,000 for Sitting Up’s funeral-related expenses.