A prosecutor and a judge both said Thursday they wish they could give more prison time to a man who admitted to moving a murder victim's body and who also did not report the homicide.
And yet, despite the gravity of his offense, an admission of guilt on the charge of being an accessory to a murder reduced Garland Brown’s punishment to four years in prison instead of five.
At a Pennington County courtroom on Thursday afternoon, Brown, 29, was sentenced for helping conceal the death of Jessica Rehfeld. The woman’s body was unearthed in the woods south of Rockerville last May, a year after authorities say her ex-boyfriend hired two men to stab her to death then bury her.
The ex-boyfriend, Jonathon Klinetobe, allegedly hired Brown and another Rapid City man to help him move Rehfeld's body about two weeks after her murder.
State’s Attorney Mark Vargo had asked Judge Robert Mandel for the maximum sentence of five years, saying Brown may have accepted responsibility for the crime, but that he did not fully understand its impact.
Brown did not merely assist in the 22-year-old woman’s reburial, Vargo said. He also participated in the “horrible and torturous treatment of her family,” keeping them wondering for a year if Rehfeld was fine and if they had done something to push her away.
In this way, Vargo said, Brown repeatedly committed the crime against Rehfeld every day until her body was found.
He had also “harbored” Klinetobe by allowing the man to share his home.
“It is a horrible accident of statute” that five years is the maximum punishment for being an accessory to first-degree murder, the state’s attorney said.
Brown’s defense lawyer argued there is legal basis for a reduced sentence when a defendant pleads guilty to a crime. Attorney John Murphy said Vargo himself applies this principle in his job but was making “wildly hyperbolic” statements for his audience’s sake.
Brown’s involvement in the crime was limited to one day, Murphy said. His client had also offered to help prosecutors in their case against the other defendants, but they declined.
Brown believes they have the facts “wrong,” Murphy told the judge. “He believes the body was reburied one more time.”
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Murphy asked for a more lenient sentence, describing Brown as someone who suffered from developmental delays and had to attend special education programs.
His inclination is to please others, Murphy told the court, making him subject to manipulation all his adult life.
When given a chance to speak, Brown apologized for his crime. “I should have reported to the police right after I found out,” he said while Rehfeld’s family members sat in the audience.
Before handing down Brown’s sentence, Mandel said the case was the first of its kind to come before him.
“I was surprised at how little of a sentence you face for a crime of this nature,” he said, but added it was his job to impose the law.
Mandel said he found Brown to be one of the less culpable of the defendants, and suspended one year in prison for Brown’s admitting to the crime. It was “worth something” and deserves consideration, the judge said.
Brown will get credit for 100 days he has spent in jail.
After the hearing, when asked why the prosecution did not accept Brown’s offer of help, Vargo said the defense lawyer's statements in court were inaccurate.
“What (Brown) asked for was if we would give him a misdemeanor if he cooperated with us, and we said, ‘Absolutely not.’ For him to now pretend that he was just making a general offer was a misrepresentation," Vargo said.
Murphy told the Journal this was just his client’s initial foray into a plea deal.
Brown's co-defendant, Michael Frye, 25, maintains his innocence.
Klinetobe, 27, faces multiple charges, including first-degree murder, along with Richard Hirth and David Schneider, the men who police say killed Rehfeld.