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POLSON — A woman charged in connection with Cassandra Harris’ death last summer remains free under terms of a plea agreement accepted Wednesday in Lake County District Court.

Julia Vaile, 18, of Missoula was behind the wheel when Joseph Parizeau, Jr. threw Cassandra Harris out of a pickup truck near McDonald Lake. She then drove away. Harris was found the next morning and soon died of her injuries. In January, Parizeau was sentenced to 10 years in prison on a charge of criminal endangerment.

Lake County Attorney Steve Eschenbacher had originally charged Vaile with accidents involving another person or a deceased person, a felony that carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years in prison, a $50,000 fine, or both. 

But at a hearing Wednesday, under questioning from Judge James Manley, Eschenbacher said that there was no evidence that Vaile knew that Parizeau had pushed Harris out, or that she had been injured. He and Vaile’s attorney, Robert Long, reached a plea agreement in December. It stated that Vaile would plead guilty to careless driving, a misdemeanor.

“Having looked at it, I felt that this was the only charge I could prove,” Eschenbacher said.

Eschenbacher made a similar statement when he amended the charge against Parizeau to criminal endangerment, rather than the original charge of negligent homicide. 

Under the plea agreement’s terms, Vaile received a six-month sentence. If she fails to obey all laws and pay a few hundred dollars’ worth of legal fees over the next six months, she could be sentenced for careless driving, which carries a maximum sentence of six months, a $5,000 fine, or both. 

Judge Manley accepted the agreement and sentence — but not before emotional testimony from both Vaile’s and Harris’ families.

In an initial statement, Vaile choked back sobs and blotted tears. “I am guilty of leaving her,” she acknowledged. “I had no idea she was going to die. I feel terrible.”

Addressing about 15 of Harris’s friends and family members, many of them wearing red “Justice for Cassandra” shirts, she said, “I know how angry and heartbroken you must be.”

Harris’ loved ones have kept turning out as Vaile and the other two individuals charged in connection with Cassandra’s death — Joseph Parizeau, Jr. and Donnovan Sherwood — worked their way through the court system these past nine months. (A fourth person, Gale Hendricx, Jr., was with them that night but has not been charged.)

Throughout the process, they’ve voiced anger with the defendants and deep dissatisfaction with the criminal justice system’s handling of the case. Wednesday’s hearing was no exception.

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“You, Julia, aided in killing my only sister, and you still don’t seem to care what you did,” said Harris’ sister, Michelle Sharbono. “You’re getting a slap on the wrist in exchange for someone being killed.” Harris’ mother, Pamela Clary, and brother-in-law, Jacob Sharbono, also took the witness stand to question Vaile’s sincerity and condemn the plea agreement.

“Vaile’s carelessness caused a loss of life,” said Clary. “A loss of life is not a misdemeanor offense.”

But Vaile’s cousin, Dawna Jo Calf Looking, took the stand to defend her. “I’ve known Julia since she was born … and Julia is the most kind person that I know,” she said. “I do believe that she would not intentionally mean for this to happen.” 

Vaile’s attorney, Robert Long, also vouched for her character. In nearly 30 years of legal practice, Long said, “I cannot recall a time when I have seen such a terrible disconnect between fact and a defendant. Julia Vaile is about the sweetest, most naïve person I've ever represented.” Vaile had no previous criminal record.

Vaile grew emotional again just before Manley handed down the suspended sentence, when he asked her if she had anything to say.

“Just that I never meant to hurt her, I didn’t hurt her at all and I’m sorry that you have lost her. She is beautiful and you’re right, she will haunt me for the rest of my life.”

To which one of Cassandra’s friends or family members whispered, “Good.”

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