About 100 members of the Quinault Indian Nation were among the friends and family of James “Jimmy” Smith-Kramer who packed the courtroom Friday morning as James Donald Walker of Hoquiam faced sentencing after pleading guilty to manslaughter and four other charges related to Smith-Kramer’s death last Memorial Day Weekend on a gravel bar on Donkey Creek about eight miles south of Amanda Park.
Walker was sentenced to 7 ½ years in jail.
Grays Harbor County Prosecutor Katie Svoboda deferred her pre-sentencing comments to two others associated with Smith-Kramer; his uncle, Rich Underwood, and Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation.
“We have found the strength to move on,” said Underwood, who said he spoke on behalf of Smith-Kramer’s family. “Jimmy was an outstanding young man. He touched a lot of people, loved sports, and served as an ambassador not only for himself and his family but the entire community.”
The events leading up to the plea deal struck by the state and defense and the ugly nature of the case prompted the family and defense to agree to the state’s deal of just over 7 ½ years for manslaughter.
“Jimmy would not want to continue on this path,” said Underwood. “It was getting ugly on both sides. It’s hard to explain this, but this is what Jim would have wanted.”
Known by many for his prowess on the basketball court, Smith-Kramer took those skills and used them off the court to the benefit of his community, said Underwood.
“He was an assist man. He assisted his teammates, he was there for them,” said Underwood. “That was (the attitude) that led him that night to pay the ultimate price to save his friend. Our belief is that Jim would not have wanted this to go on. We knew how ugly things were getting, and that’s not who Jimmy was. That’s why we’re here today.”
The friend Underwood refers to is another young man, Harvey Anderson, who was injured in the incident. Accounts from witnesses from the gravel bar say Smith-Kramer leaped to push Anderson out of the path of the vehicle, quite possibly saving the young man’s life at the expense of his own.
Underwood then addressed Walker directly.
“To you I have only this to say, Mr. Walker. Someday you will be able to walk free. We have a great hope you can get on with your life, help people, be thankful and be humble. We want you to be a productive citizen and give back to your community.”
Quinault President Fawn Sharp was next, talking first about the differences between the justice system within the reservation and that outside its borders.
“The system of justice we, as a people, exercise is foreign to (others),” she said. “When we do wrong we own it. … Jimmy was a young man who represented all that’s good in our youth, an example of what our ancestors taught us. Even though Jimmy was young himself, he gave a shining example for our children.”
Sharp held fast to her belief that the incident on Donkey Creek, where Walker’s pickup truck backed up into Smith-Kramer and friend Harvey Anderson, was no accident.
“From our perspective we don’t believe it was an accident, but something that came from a deep dark place,” she said. She then asked Superior Court Judge Ray Kahler to consider extenuating circumstances, which she has maintained from early on were racially motivating factors in the incident, outlining what she described as a history of abuse tribal members face when off-reservation in general. She then addressed Walker directly.
“Jimmy meant so much to us,” she said, quickly adding, “There is no question you know what was in your heart. You will be taking those thoughts and feelings to your grave. Once you are sentenced, we will let you out of our hearts, let you go. The way to let you go is to look you in the eye and offer forgiveness … through our creator. Your life was spared under this justice system,” but final judgment would be in the hands of the creator.
“This case has been difficult from the beginning,” said Svoboda. In speaking with the family members of the victim and the tribe, she assured them that since the passengers in Walker’s vehicle would no longer be needed as witnesses in a trial, all three would be charged for their parts in the incident.
Walker’s defense lawyer, Christopher Baum, agreed, “This was a tough case in a lot of ways.” He was adamant there was no racial motivation in the case. “It was late at night, two groups, most intoxicated, the people in the car claiming they were attacked and assaulted, and my client backing up to get out and unfortunately one person was killed. He should have called the police, should have called for an ambulance, a big part of the reason for the plea is what he did after the fact.”
Both the defense and prosecutors agree that Walker was driving recklessly on the gravel bar, reportedly doing doughnuts near where Smith-Kramer’s party was camping. A confrontation followed, but accounts vary as to what exactly led up to Walker putting his truck in reverse, hitting the gas, striking the two victims and quickly leaving the scene.
Baum said his client was humbled by the incident. “Never once has he said ‘I didn’t do anything wrong.’” With that, he asked for a sentence of 67 months, what he called a significant amount of time for a person with Walker’s background.
Walker asked Judge Kahler if he could address the gallery directly and was allowed to do so. As he turned to face them, Underwood stood up, and soon the dozens more joined him.
“First thing I’d like to say is how sorry I am for my actions that night,” said Walker, his voice breaking at times. “I am responsible for this. 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.”
Judge Kahler made some remarks before handing down the maximum sentence allowed, 7 1/2 years. Especially troublesome to him were the string of bad decisions Walker made leading to the incident and the fact he left the scene without seeking aid.
“I understand the victim leaves behind two young children that will never know their father, and a mother who has no assistance financially,” said Kahler. “Jimmy made such an impact, hunting for elders to provide them food, he was someone children looked up to, and he was a friend who put other peoples’ problems ahead of his own.”