A 28-year-old man was sentenced to three years in prison for killing a man in a fight in downtown Williston in May 2019.
After an emotionally charged, three-hour hearing, a judge sentenced Justin Crites to 10 years in prison, with seven years suspended. He will spend five years on probation after his release.
Crites was convicted of manslaughter, a class B felony, after a seven-day trial in August. He was accused of killing Jay LePage by punching him and causing him to hit his head on the sidewalk. Crites has been in the Williams County jail since his conviction.
Both the prosecution and defense spent Thursday’s trying to convince Northwest District Judge Kirsten Sjue of Crites’ character.
During the trial, Crites argued he had acted in self-defense and only punched LePage after being hit himself. Another witness testified she didn’t see LePage act aggressively, however, but did see Crites hit him.
Because the jury convicted him, Sjue said she wouldn’t consider that when coming up with a sentence.
“I’m not going to sentence Mr. Crites here today crediting self defense claims that were basically rejected by the jury,” she said.
The defense called four witnesses to talk about Crites’ character — a former romantic partner and her mother, his current girlfriend and Craig Metcalf, the founder of the Prairie Rattlers, the motorcycle club Crites belonged to.
On the stand, Metcalf said he got to know Crites about five years ago when the two took a motorcycle trip to Kansas.
“I got to learn a lot about him,” Metcalf said. “He seemed to be a guy I wanted to hang around with. He was a good guy. He wasn’t mean, he wasn’t pushy. I kinda felt that him being loud was a way of him being noticed so you would get to know him.”
While the witnesses said Crites helped people he didn’t know and was a kind person, Nathan Madden, assistant state’s attorney for Williams County, said Crites could have stayed outside the bar when LePage fell, but instead he rode off.
“When his friend needed him that night because of what he did, he disappeared,” Madden said. “He didn’t care about his friend, he wanted to be gone.”
Madden said Crites’ reaction showed he had problems controlling his anger and that he would be dangerous unless that changed.
Hernando Perez, Crites’ public defender for the sentencing hearing, disagreed and pointed out Crites had no criminal record before he was charged with manslaughter.
“This was a split-second decision he made that will forever change his life and the lives of the LePage family,” Perez said.
Crites spoke near the end of the hearing and addressed LePage’s friends and family in the courtroom. He apologized for his part in LePage’s death and said he regretted what happened.
“For the rest of my life, no matter what happens from here on out, this is something I will live with every day,” he said. “I don’t even know yet if I can forgive myself for what happened.”
Sjue said she believed Crites didn’t intend to kill LePage when he punched him, but said the charge didn’t require — manslaughter requires the defendant to act recklessly, not with the intention to kill.
“People contain multitudes and I have no doubt Mr. Crites is like all of us,” Sjue said.
She said she weighed the positive traits witnesses brought up against the testimony at the trial and what the defendant was convicted of when deciding on a sentence.
The fact Crites knew LePage and had expressed remorse added to the complication.
“(LePage’s family) carry the burden of having lost a loved one, and you bear the burden of being involved and recklessly causing his death,” she said.
In cases where a victim dies, the sentencing is always a difficult matter, she said.
“Every time I have the same feeling — that i wish i could bring the person back,” Sjue said before announcing the sentence. “That would be true justice. Tragically, unfortunately, I am not able to do that.”