POLSON — Joseph Parizeau Jr. has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for criminal endangerment of Cassandra Harris.
Onlookers wearing red “Justice for Cassandra” T-shirts burst into tears as Judge James Manley delivered the sentence in the Lake County Courthouse Wednesday afternoon. For seven months, they had been supporting the Harris family and remembering Harris, who was left for dead in the woods near McDonald Lake last June.
“She needs justice,” said Eva Johnsen of Ronan before Parizeau’s sentencing hearing.
Parizeau, 23, allegedly threw 24-year-old Harris out of a truck near the lake last June. She was found several hours later, and died at Kalispell Regional Medical Center.
The prosecutor, Lake County Attorney Steve Eschenbacher, had originally charged Parizeau with one count of negligent homicide, and three counts of witness tampering for allegedly trying to keep his three other companions that night — Julia Vaile, Donnovan Sherwood and Gale Hendrickx Jr. — quiet.
But last month, just before the case was due to go to trial, Eschenbacher changed course. Saying he was concerned that the medical evidence and witness testimony wasn’t enough to secure a conviction, he amended the complaint to one count of criminal endangerment, which carries a maximum penalty of a $50,000 fine, 10 years in state prison, or both.
Parizeau entered an Alford plea, which allows a defendant to maintain his or her innocence, but to be sentenced as if guilty. That angered those who had wanted to see a homicide conviction for Harris’ death, and witnesses called by Eschenbacher on Wednesday spent nearly an hour mourning Harris, voicing their frustrations with the courts, and condemning Parizeau.
“I never imagined I would have my little sister taken from me in such a senseless and cruel way,” said her sister, Michelle Sharbono. “The lives of every member of our family have forever been affected by Cassandra’s death.”
Harris' mother, Pamela Clary addressed the judge, saying, “I want Joseph to serve his lifetime in exchange for my youngest daughter Cassandra’s life. Since it is clear he will not … please give him the full 10 years.”
Parizeau sat expressionless as the state’s witnesses testified, occasionally shaking his head or conferring with Brian Smith, his defense attorney, who was seeking a six-year deferred sentence. A deferred sentence means a person's record is erased if certain terms are followed for a prescribed time.
When Smith's time came to call witnesses, he probed the state’s pre-sentencing investigation of Parizeau, as well as the kinds of resources that Parizeau would receive if he were sentenced to probation. He also called several of Parizeau’s family members to the stand.
“Joseph had a pretty hard upbringing,” said his mother, Farrah Hameline. She gave birth to him at age 16, while struggling with addiction. “Joseph witnessed a lot of trauma at a very young age …. For all that’s being said about him, it’s not the truth, it’s far from the truth.”
She, along with Parizeau's partner and grandmother, all challenged the state witnesses’ characterization of Joseph as a “monster” and voiced a willingness to help him overcome his chemical dependency issues if given the chance — and all had their credibility called into question by Eschenbacher.
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The prosecutor had drawn sharp criticism from Harris’ family and friends for his handling of this case. But in his closing arguments, he reiterated the need to secure justice for her death.
“This case is called State vs. Parizeau, but it’s about Cassandra,” he said. “We can’t forget she’s the reason we’re here.”
“Joe Parizeau deserves 10 years …. He is a threat to our community, he is a threat to everyone else he comes into contact with, he should not be allowed out.”
Smith reiterated the importance of due process. “Judge, we don’t sentence people for what we think they might have done, we don’t sentence people for what we we cannot prove.
“This is Mr. Parizeau’s first felony conviction. There is no reason not to impose a deferred sentence, other than the grief.”
The defendant himself, given a chance to speak, told the judge that “I am not a monster that everyone makes me looks like.”
“If I could’ve gone back in time and made sure that Cassie was safe that night I would have, but I don’t know what happened. … I want to be a better father and a productive member of society.”
But neither his arguments nor Smith’s swayed Judge Manley.
“I frankly can’t imagine a more serious case than this,” he said. “If this case does not qualify for the maximum sentence, I don’t know what the Legislature could’ve imagined” when they imposed the penalty. “So it is the sentence and judgment of this court that the defendant is sentenced to Montana State Prison with none of that time suspended and with no possibility of parole.”
Afterward, Eschenbacher said that “I’m happy that the judge recognized the severity of the crime and that this is an appropriate sentence.” Smith, meanwhile, said that “we were disappointed in the sentence. We didn’t expect to have a parole restriction. Joe was pretty upset afterwards. … I’m sure we’ll want somebody else to review it.”
Harris’ brother, Brett Harris, drew little comfort from the decision. “He got the max, but it’s not what it should’ve been,” he said.
But Johnsen, the Harris family friend, was more upbeat. “Justice was served as best it could be,” she said. “Judge Manley did his job.”