“I have to follow the law”
Story by Maggie Dresser | Staff Writer
When Kari Covers Up learned from a passerby in Crow Agency, Montana, that her brother’s killer was going to be released early from prison, she felt old wounds reopening. Not only was Quinton Birdinground Jr., 38, supposed to serve nine more years for murder and assault, authorities were supposed to notify Covers Up, a Crow tribal member and former tribal judge, and her family of his whereabouts when he was released.
So she and her 72-year-old aunt, Myra Lefthand, were shocked when they heard rumors on the reservation of his impending release. “Nobody knows what’s going on,” Lefthand said. “That’s the same thing we’ve experienced. Somebody need[ed] to come tell us what’s going on.”
The lack of communication frustrated Lefthand, who feels her family is being ignored. “They do it for white victims,” Lefthand said. “We’re almost like second-class citizens.”
Fifteen years ago, at a house party, Birdinground shot his uncle (who was also Kari Covers Up’s brother), Emerson Pickett, as well as Birdinground’s estranged girlfriend. He killed Pickett and grazed his ex-girlfriend’s hand.
In 2003, a jury convicted Birdinground of three counts—second-degree murder, assault resulting in serious bodily injury, and using a firearm during a violent crime—and a federal judge sentenced him to 24 years in prison. But on Aug. 23, 2018, U.S. District Judge Susan Watters re-examined his sentence in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the violent crime law was unconstitutional. This meant she had to throw out his conviction on the violent crime count, which carried a 10-year sentence. This meant Birdinground had already served his sentence for the other two counts, and had to be released.
Before Birdinground was released, Covers Up and Lefthand were working with Rhonda Myron, a victim witness coordinator for the Assistant U.S. Attorney’s Office in Billings. Lefthand said Myron was supposed to notify the family about Birdinground’s upcoming court dates and prison release, but they received no notification (Myron didn’t respond to emails sent to her work account).
According to the Associated Press, Judge Watters expressed unease at releasing Birdinground, but said she had no choice. “How in the world could second-degree murder not be a crime of violence?” Watters told Pickett’s family during the August 2018 hearing. “I get that. I have to follow the law.”
The Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that the “residual clause” of the Armed Career Criminal Act, which had been enacted as part of an effort to impose tougher sentences on defendants with three prior convictions for a violent felony, was unconstitutionally vague and “so standardless it invites arbitrary enforcement.” The Court held that increasing sentences under ACCA’s residual clause violated due process.
Birdinground’s prosecutor, Lori Suek, began an appeal after his release, and said she thinks they may be able to reinstate the original sentence. But it could take years to complete. Meanwhile, Birdinground remains free in Billings and Pickett’s family wants justice. “For someone to take my brother’s life and just be able to walk out, that hurts,” Covers Up said.