BILLINGS, MT (AP) — A U.S. judge ordered a convicted killer from Montana’s Crow Indian Reservation released from prison on Thursday after part of his conviction was overturned for not meeting the definition of a violent crime.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Lori Harper Suek wept as she told the court, including the victim’s three daughters, that she had no legal basis to ask to keep Quinton Birdinground Jr. behind bars.
Birdinground served 15 years of his original 24-year sentence for assaulting his estranged girlfriend and killing his uncle, Emerson Pickett, after a night of drinking in 2003.
U.S. District Judge Susan Watters expressed unease over Birdinground’s release but said she was bound under a 2015 Supreme Court ruling and encouraged prosecutors to appeal.
“How in the world could second-degree murder not be a crime of violence?” Watters said to Pickett’s family during Thursday’s hearing. “I get that. I have to follow the law.”
Birdinground was found guilty of assault and murder, but the issue hinges on his conviction of using a firearm during a violent crime.
Watters threw out the firearm conviction last month, citing the 2015 ruling and saying the U.S. law behind the weapons charge was so vague as to be unconstitutional. That’s because the assault and murder may have been committed recklessly rather than intentionally, as is required to be considered a violent crime.
Pickett’s daughter, Jena, said Birdinground’s release was stirring up all the pain she felt when she was 13 and her father was killed.
“We’re not healed, and we’re never going to heal,” she said. “We’re going through the same thing again.”
Under his new sentence, Birdinground will be supervised by a probation officer for the next five years. He expressed no remorse over the killing but said he would “try to stay as far away as I can” from the reservation.
He was ordered to have no contact with the victim’s family and to remain in Billings for now. Pickett’s daughters live across the street from the defendant’s mother on the Crow reservation and were worried that he would want to return home.
Suek, the prosecutor, pledged to keep pursuing the case and try to send Birdinground back to prison.
“We do believe Mr. Birdinground will be back in the courtroom, and we will be able to revive the original sentence,” she said.