POLSON — Amy Castlio stood outside the Lake County Courthouse in the predawn darkness Wednesday morning, bundled against the wind in a red “Justice for Cassandra” sweatshirt and holding a placard with the same message.
“We’re angry,” she said, joined by a small knot of allies. They had come for a hearing in the state’s case against Joseph Conko Parizeau, who allegedly threw Cassandra Harris out of a moving truck near McDonald Lake last June. Harris died.
Wednesday, Parizeau entered an Alford plea to a single charge of criminal endangerment in the case, which allows him to maintain his innocence, and the state to proceed with sentencing as if he were guilty.
Lake County Attorney Steve Eschenbacher initially charged Parizeau with one count of negligent homicide and three counts of witness tampering for allegedly trying to keep others silent about his actions.
But last week, the prosecutor changed course. Concerned that the medical evidence couldn’t conclusively prove that Harris had died by falling out of the truck, possibly leading to a hung jury or acquittal on the homicide charge, Eschenbacher amended it to the endangerment charge.
News of this shift angered those who wanted to see a conviction for Harris’ death, with several commenters in the “Mission Valley Safety Awareness” Facebook group attacking Eschenbacher and the local criminal justice system. “We want justice,” Castlio said outside the courthouse before Wednesday's hearing. “Criminal endangerment is not justice.”
But at the hearing, Lake County District Court Judge James Manley accepted the amended charge, and dismissed the three counts of witness tampering without prejudice.
In front of about 50 spectators, many of them wearing red in honor of Harris, Manley questioned Eschenbacher about his decision.
“Can you proceed ethically under the original charge, knowing what you know at this time?” he asked.
“I don’t believe so, your honor, I do not.”
“So do the ethical rules require you to either dismiss or amend [the charge]?”
“That’s what I have to do,” he replied.
“Do the ethical rules apply even if you know that’s going to be an unpopular decision in the community?”
“It would have been very tempting to go along and ignore that rule, but I don’t feel like I can do that.”
The judge accepted the amended charge. Criminal endangerment carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, a $50,000 fine, or both. That’s not enough in the eyes of Harris’ sister, Michelle Sharbono.
“I’m disappointed in how our judicial system is handling my sister’s homicide case,” she said after the hearing, “and I don’t think that the sentence and charges are worth a human life.”