A Missoula woman is facing a minimum two-year prison sentence after she was found guilty this week of a racially motivated assault for accosting her African-American neighbor.
Lawrence Blackwell, the victim, said he broke down in tears when the verdict came in.
At the end of a trial Thursday in Missoula County District Court, the jury found Susan Ann Lafriniere committed an assault based on the victim's race. Although assault is a misdemeanor charge, an enhancement because it was based on race carries a felony-level punishment.
Lafriniere also was found guilty of violating a restraining order.
According to court records, Blackwell was outside his house washing his car in September 2013 when he saw Lafriniere yelling at a woman and her daughter walking along the street.
“This is an elderly neighborhood, all 55 and older, and I’m the only African-American that lives here,” Blackwell, 63, recalled. “A lady came on my lawn and basically accosted another woman that lives in some low-income housing. She felt as though they were second-class citizens. She started screaming at this lady and little girl to get out of here. So I stepped up and said, ‘Look, you can do what you want on your property but this is my property.’ And she said ‘I’m not talking to you, you black n—.’ And she said it four or five times and came over and put her finger in my face and said she’s going to make sure I don’t live here anymore. I’m thinking this is ‘Candid Camera’ or something. I can’t believe what’s going on.”
One of the neighbors, Betty Chrestenson, was outside and shouted at Lafriniere to stop, but Lafriniere continued to yell the word until Blackwell walked away.
On at least four other occasions, Lafriniere “flipped the bird” at Blackwell.
“Every time she sees me and my wife in our car, she takes her hand off the wheel to give us the finger and yells n— at us, even in the middle of town,” Blackwell said.
Blackwell was able to secure a restraining order against Lafriniere, but she still accosted him again.
“She saw my car and started on me again with the n— thing, and tried to push me out of the neighbor’s door,” Blackwell said. “I’m 6-foot-6 and she’s 5-foot-nothing. She was claiming I’m disrespecting this lady’s house. I was able to file assault charges. There is an attachment to assault that is the equivalent to a hate crime, and that triples the consequences of it.”
Blackwell said that Lafriniere also followed him from his house to downtown Missoula.
“Even in court she called me a pig and a piece of black (expletive),” he said. “She was even threatening the witnesses outside of the courtroom in the hall. I was afraid for my kids, who are 10 and 14. If she will do this to a 6-foot-6 guy, what would she do to my kids?”
Blackwell said he was shopping in Home Depot when the prosecutor called to tell him the verdict.
“I literally broke down in tears,” he said. “The people at Home Depot were trying to call an ambulance for me. I just needed some time to absorb this. I just lost it because I’ve been fighting this for two years, and every other day I have to listen to this woman. It seems like a lifetime.”
Blackwell said he also intends to sue for monetary damages in civil court. He is quick to point out that his feelings about the Missoula community haven’t been tainted though.
“I have nothing but upmost respect for the people of Missoula,” he said. “She had a good lawyer, and I told him that. Her being on the stand, that’s what really did her in. There aren’t many black people in Missoula. I’ve only met seven people in the three years I’ve been here. Missoula is accepting though. I’m a Navy veteran of the Vietnam era. I can live anywhere, including Japan and South Korea. I try to get along and leave people alone.”
Lafriniere will be sentenced April 22. She will have to undergo a pre-sentence mental health evaluation.
Under the hate crime statute 45-2-222, she faces no less than two years and no more than 10 in the Montana State Prison. However, the judge has the discretion to suspend any length of time of the sentence.
"I think the Legislature, in its collaborative wisdom, decided that crimes that were committed because of the hate of a protected class should be subject to an increased penalty," Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst said when Lafriniere was charged. "As you can see you, these alleged crimes profoundly affected the victim and his family. And it's that harm that the Legislature is attempting to prevent."