A white man in our
state got 7.5
years behind bars for a killing some said was fueled by hate
By Rahima Nasa
(GRAYS HARBOR COUNTY, WA.) –
May 11 sentencing of James Walker proceeded as planned inside Grays
Harbor, Washington, Superior Court: The 32-year-old pleaded guilty to
manslaughter in the second degree in the death of Jimmy Smith-Kramer,
a young father of two and member of the Quinault Indian Nation.
Judge Ray Kahler accepted
the plea and
sentenced Walker to 7 1/2 years in prison in Washington state for
having run Smith-Kramer over with his pickup truck.
There was one moment,
however, when a
matter not part of the formal proceeding was broached: Was Walker’s
killing of Smith-Kramer driven by hate for Native Americans? The
authorities had concluded there was not sufficient evidence to make
such a charge.
But many in the Quinault
remained insistent that Smith-Kramer, struck dead at a local campsite
as he celebrated his 20th birthday, had been targeted for his
And so when the local
members of the Quinault Nation to speak last Friday, Fawn Sharp stood
and addressed the court.
“From our perspective we
believe it was an accident,” Sharp, the tribe’s
president, said. “But something that came from a deep dark
The Smith-Kramer killing on
Peninsula along Washington’s Pacific coast briefly gained local
and national notoriety when early accounts included claims that
Walker or others with him in his truck that night had used Native
slurs during the fatal incident.
And for some involved with
behalf of indigenous peoples, the case shone a rare light on the
often underappreciated issue of hate crimes against the country’s
to a joint 2017 study by NPR, the Robert Wood
Foundation and Harvard University, 39 percent of Native Americans
surveyed reported they had experienced offensive comments about their
race or ethnicity. Meanwhile, 34 percent said they or a family member
had experienced violence for being Native.
The Grays Harbor Sheriff’s
investigated the possibility that the case could have been a hate
crime after one of the witnesses said she heard “war whoops”
from Walker before the attack. Two other witnesses who had been
camping nearby told ProPublica that they also heard racial slurs from
Walker’s group and told as much to investigators.
But no hate crime charge was
the deadly episode some 40 miles from the Quinault reservation.
“There just wasn’t enough
there,” said Katie Svoboda, the local prosecutor.
Walker had been charged by
with first-degree manslaughter, and had he been convicted at trial he
might have faced a sentence as long as life behind bars.
In court last Friday, Walker
mention of Smith-Kramer’s heritage when he publicly admitted
his guilt. He had insisted to detectives that he drove his truck into
Smith-Kramer after members of the young man’s birthday party
confronted him. He’d even claimed a minor Native heritage
“I am responsible for this,”
Walker told the court. “I pray for the families to heal. I
realize he has children who will never know him, and he will never
know the joy of being a father. All I can do is beg for mercy and say
to the family I am very sorry.”
For Richie Underwood,
great uncle, Walker’s admission and his negotiated sentence was
in the end enough.
Underwood, who addressed the
well, said the young man’s family was looking forward to moving
on and healing.
“Jimmy would not want to
on this path,” Underwood said.
Are you a Native
person who has been
a victim or witness of a hate incident? Tell
us your story.
Rahima Nasa is a
reporting fellow for
ProPublica’s Documenting Hate project.
may find an earlier Propublica article about this case found here,
“A Killing At Donkey Creek,” also of interest.
report originally ran at ProPublica and is reprinted here with
permission. ProPublica is a non-profit news platform that produces
investigative journalism in the public interest.
was a recipient of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for public service, the
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