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Family fills courtroom seeking justice for death of Ronan woman

Almost eight months after Cassandra Harris, 24, was killed, the person held most culpable for her death was sentenced in an emotion-filled courtroom.

At District Court in Polson on Jan. 30, Judge James Manley sent Joseph Conko Parizeau, Jr., 23, of Big Arm, to Montana State Prison for 10 years with none of that time suspended and “no possibility for parole.”  

Manley reminded Parizeau to remain standing and said, “The legislature has made the maximum sentence in this case 10 years without the possibility of parole. I quite frankly can’t imagine a more serious case than this, so if this case does not qualify for the maximum sentence, I don’t know what the legislature could have imagined.”  

Parizeau reached a plea agreement for the case on Dec. 19. 2018. The agreement turned one count of negligent homicide and three counts of tampering with witnesses into one count of criminal endangerment, but it also guaranteed a conviction through an Alford plea. In an Alford plea, a defendant concedes the case based on state’s evidence without admitting guilt.

Parizeau is alleged to have pushed Harris from a moving vehicle causing her to fall out onto the road with enough force to fracture her skull. There were three witnesses at the event including Donnovan Sherwood, 19, Gale Hendrickx, 19 and Julia Vaile, 18. 

Sherwood later pleaded guilty to obstructing justice and was given a three-year deferred sentence based on the condition that he testify against Parizeau if Parizeau’s case went to trial. Charges against Hendrickx were dismissed. Vaile is set to appear at a change of plea hearing Feb. 20 on the amended charge of careless driving, a misdemeanor. She was initially charged with accidents involving another person or deceased person, a felony.

Parizeau’s plea agreement came without a recommendation leaving the state to argue for the maximum sentence and Parizeau’s attorney, Brian C. Smith of Missoula, to argue for deferring the imposition of sentencing for six years. 

Many of Harris' family members and supporters took to the witness stand to criticize the entire judicial process and the plea agreement. They all asked for the maximum punishment. Cassandra’s mother Pamela Harris told the court, “During this whole process the offender has more rights than that of the offended. From the beginning, I never believed the theory of being pushed from a moving vehicle.” 

Pamela continued, “We as a family spent the last days with Cassandra as she transitioned from this life. In my opinion, she did not have a single injury that occurred from one incident. The death certificate states cause of death (to be) multiple blunt force trauma to the head. Multiple ... let that sink in a moment.” 

She spoke about spending hours at court appearances and how her family and supporters “always showed up” in numbers. “We are loud, large and loyal,” she said. And during Parizeau’s sentencing, many of those family members and supporters wore red shirts with the written message “Justice for Cassandra.” 

Several members of Parizeau’s family testified, pleading for leniency. Farrah Hameline, Parizeau’s mother, said her son is “not the monster everyone is making him out to be.” She spoke of Parizeau as being a good father to his three children and a very caring person. 

Parizeau visibly wept as his mother spoke of his childhood and strong Native American culture and heritage. Hameline said her son was a very prominent traditional dancer and featured in a national publication (she couldn’t remember which publication). She acknowledged that her son had a difficult upbringing and has trouble with sobriety. She said both she and her son’s father had issues with chemical dependency.

Lake County Attorney Steven Eschenbacher immediately pointed out that Hameline was a convicted felon and currently in violation of the conditions of her release. He also asked if “caring people” leave others to die in the woods on a rainy night after they’ve been shoved from a moving vehicle. 

Parizeau said, before sentencing: “I am not a monster. Everybody makes me look like, you know. If I could go back in time and make sure Cassie was safe that night, you know I would have, but I don’t know what happened. I honest to God don’t know what happened.”

As for the tampering charges that were dismissed, they were developed when Eshenbacher learned from Sherwood, Hendrickx and Vaile that Parizeau allegedly told them to lie about what happened the night Cassandra was pushed from the vehicle. Parizeau also allegedly threatened them if they told.

In an unrelated matter, Parizeau is facing trial in April on two counts of assault with a weapon and two counts of intimidation for allegedly pointing an AR-15 assault rifle at two men near Ronan in October of 2017. The two men told investigators that Parizeau demanded to see their tribal identification cards, and then he allegedly pointed the rifle at them and demanded cash and drugs. This case was earlier dismissed when key evidence, a photo on a mobile device allegedly identifying Parizeau as the suspect, couldn’t be produced. The charges were brought back when the evidence was located. 

When arguing for the full 10 years, Eschenbacher said Parizeau should have been in jail from a conviction in the AR-15 matter, which would mean Cassandra would still be alive. “We build prisons for very few people, but Joseph Parizeau is one of them,” Eschenbacher said.

 

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