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At a Killer’s Sentencing, Native Americans Talk of Both Healing and Enduring Suspicions

A white man in Washington state got 7 1/2 years for a killing some said was fueled by hate.

Donkey Creek Road, near where Jimmy Smith-Kramer was killed last year, outside Taholah, Washington (Andrew Burton for ProPublica)

The May 11 sentencing of James Walker proceeded as planned inside Grays Harbor, Washington, Superior Court: The 32-year-old pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the second degree in the death of Jimmy Smith-Kramer, a young father of two and member of the Quinault Indian Nation. Judge Ray Kahler accepted the plea and sentenced Walker to 7 1/2 years in prison in Washington state for having run Smith-Kramer over with his pickup truck.

There was one moment, however, when a matter not part of the formal proceeding was broached: Was Walker’s killing of Smith-Kramer driven by hate for Native Americans? The authorities had concluded there was not sufficient evidence to make such a charge. But many in the Quinault Nation had remained insistent that Smith-Kramer, struck dead at a local campsite as he celebrated his 20th birthday, had been targeted for his heritage.

And so when the local prosecutor invited members of the Quinault Nation to speak last Friday, Fawn Sharp stood and addressed the court.

“From our perspective we don’t believe it was an accident,” Sharp, the tribe’s president, said. “But something that came from a deep dark place.”

The Smith-Kramer killing on the Olympic Peninsula along Washington’s Pacific coast briefly gained local and national notoriety when early accounts included claims that Walker or others with him in his truck that night had used Native slurs during the fatal incident. And for some involved with advocacy on behalf of indigenous peoples, the case shone a rare light on the often underappreciated issue of hate crimes against the country’s Native population.

According to a joint 2017 study by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard University, 39 percent of Native Americans surveyed reported they had experienced offensive comments about their race or ethnicity. Meanwhile, 34 percent said they or a family member had experienced violence for being Native.

The Grays Harbor Sheriff’s Office investigated the possibility that the case could have been a hate crime after one of the witnesses said she heard “war whoops” from Walker before the attack. Two other witnesses who had been camping nearby told ProPublica that they also heard racial slurs from Walker’s group and told as much to investigators.

But no hate crime charge was lodged for the deadly episode some 40 miles from the Quinault reservation.

“There just wasn’t enough there,” said Katie Svoboda, the local prosecutor.

Walker had been charged by prosecutors with first-degree manslaughter, and had he been convicted at trial he might have faced a sentence as long as life behind bars.

In court last Friday, Walker made no mention of Smith-Kramer’s heritage when he publicly admitted his guilt. He had insisted to detectives that he drove his truck into Smith-Kramer after members of the young man’s birthday party confronted him. He’d even claimed a minor Native heritage himself.

“I am responsible for this,” Walker told the court. “I pray for the families to heal. I realize he has children who will never know him, and he will never know the joy of being a father. All I can do is beg for mercy and say to the family I am very sorry.”

For Richie Underwood, Smith-Kramer’s great uncle, Walker’s admission and his negotiated sentence was in the end enough.

Underwood, who addressed the court as well, said the young man’s family was looking forward to moving on and healing.

“Jimmy would not want to continue on this path,” Underwood said.

Are you a Native person who has been a victim or witness of a hate incident? Tell us your story.

Portrait of Rahima Nasa

Rahima Nasa

Rahima Nasa is a reporting fellow for ProPublica’s Documenting Hate project.

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