Reader questions light sentence for drunk driver who killed Native American pedestrian

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Last Monday, April 9th, I attended the “Justice for Benno Jay Big Back, Jr.” rally organized by Native Generational Change. Last February, Benno was struck by a car and killed by Emily Bess Leven.

While Judge Halligan ultimately sentenced Leven to 10 years with the Department of Corrections (with five years suspended), the rally highlighted that prosecutors did not charge Leven with “Vehicular Homicide while under the Influence.” Though she had a blood alcohol content of 0.12, declined assistance from a witness and got out of the car to observe Benno’s body before driving away, the District Attorney nevertheless decided she was “unable to avoid hitting Big Back.”

“Unable to avoid hitting Big Back.” Let that sink in.

As I listened, I thought about the discussions swirling about gun violence, sovereignty, police murders of innocent African American men, the racial bias that generates higher criminal arrest rates for Native Americans, larger sentences and increased imprisonment for people of color. These are huge issues that do not have simple or one-size-fits all solutions.

But in listening to Benno’s family and friends, it is clear that the system could have provided some level of justice by having Leven charged with vehicular homicide. I think about the District Attorney’s decision to drop those charges out of concern that he could not “prove neglect,” and realize that in building a movement linking senseless and horrifying school gun violence to senseless and horrifying police violence, we must also address another profound layer of injustice: namely, a system in which senseless and horrifying crimes against victims of color are taken less seriously then crimes against white people. A system that denies to victims of color and indigenous people the presumption of innocence.

Drawing on media-driven racist stereotypes, police are forgiven for fear-based impulse killings of a black man Sacramento, black victims of Austin bombings are nameless, and drunk white drivers in Missoula are told they can’t avoid killing a native man who was on his way home. It is nearly impossible to imagine a native driver being so absolved and a white victim being so blamed.

At the rally, court workers, family and community members told stories about how their lives had been devalued, their personhood dehumanized. While people made plans to work together to end racism, the overall feeling was that so much more could and should have been done to protect and value Benno, who was a wonderful human being. Who was loved by everyone he met.

I am no fan of harsh sentences and I do imagine that Leven is a broken person who needs care. Indeed, we do need to demand a truly restorative model of justice that can bring repair and healing to both victims and offenders. But in my view, that can only happen if we end intergenerational violence against natives, acknowledge and address systemic racial bias. I am grateful for activists who address these issues and I stand with Benno’s family in anger that this is a fight we are still having to fight.