Darrick Bellecourt will serve at least 16 years in prison for the Oct. 13, 2002, murder of Zack Peterson.
Crow Wing County District Court Judge Fred Casey Friday sentenced Bellecourt to 306 months in prison, with two-thirds of that time in prison and one third on supervised release. He was given credit for time served.
Bellecourt, 18, was found guilty Sept. 22 of second-degree murder for the shooting death of Peterson, 15. During the trial there was no debate between the defense and prosecution that Bellecourt shot Peterson. However, Bellecourt's defense attorney, Trudell Guerue Jr., argued that Bellecourt acted in self-defense. Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan said Bellecourt demonstrated an unreasonable use of force without justification. It took a jury about six hours to return a guilty verdict.
Before Casey handed down his sentence, members of both Peterson's and Bellecourt's families were allowed to make victim impact statements.
Zack Peterson's sister, Sara Peterson, asked Casey if Bellecourt could turn and face her when she spoke, but Casey wouldn't allow it, stating she must address the court. Sara Peterson went on to say she lost more on Oct. 13 than any monetary amount she would lose in her life.
"Zack was my family, he was everything," said Peterson. "I know Darrick being in prison is not going to do anything for anybody. I hope in the bottom of his heart it was something he didn't mean to do."
After court was adjourned, Sara Peterson said she wanted to face Bellecourt so she could give him a hug.
"That's what he needed a year and-a-half ago," said Sara Peterson.
"It's what he needed 18 years ago," added Sara and Zack Peterson's mother, Theresa Peterson. Though she thought the sentence was fair, Theresa Peterson said it brought no closure for her and her family. "There's nothing. This was all about Darrick and what happened to him."
Bellecourt's family said Darrick Bellecourt has had to struggle his whole life; being abandoned at an early age by his mother and later on by social services, Brainerd schools and ultimately the court system.
Darrick Bellecourt's father, Bret Bellecourt, was overcome with emotion when he was asked to speak and had to leave the courtroom for a moment. When he returned, Bret Bellecourt said his son wasn't a bad kid, he just got caught up with the wrong people in a bad situation.
"He's had a hard time in his life," an emotional Bret Bellecourt told the court. "I don't see how sending him away to prison for years and years is going to help anything, or make it right."
Between Bret Bellecourt's exit and return to the court room, Darrick Bellecourt's grandfather, Vernon Bellecourt, addressed the court, saying Darrick Bellecourt was a victim of the system.
"This young man, along with Zack Peterson, is a victim of an uncaring, cold community," said Vernon Bellecourt before his grandson's sentencing. "We need to realize this young man needs much more help than what 40 years in prison can provide him."
Gordon Stewart, executive director of the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis who's spent time with Darrick Bellecourt, asked Casey to consider a downward departure from the sentencing guidelines for Darrick Bellecourt's second-degree murder conviction.
"Darrick Bellecourt is not a throwaway," said Stewart. "He's sensitive, he's artistic, he liked to draw. He reads book I would not expect someone his age to read. Given what he's been through, I have to say, your honor, I'm impressed with him as a human being ... I beg for your mercy, your honor."
Darrick Bellecourt declined to address the court.
Casey said there wasn't a person in the court room who wouldn't like the chance to turn back the clock and try to prevent what had happened. But because no one could, and because he couldn't find any reasons to depart from the sentencing guidelines, Casey said he was compelled to hand down the sentence he did.
Casey also order Darrick Bellecourt to pay $10,378 in restitution.
Scott Swanson, a Minneapolis attorney who will be handling Darrick Bellecourt's appeal, said he plans to immediately begin work on filing Bellecourt's appeal within 90 days.
After Casey adjourned court, a man sitting with Darrick Bellecourt's family, but who didn't identify himself, stood up and said: "This is another case of white justice for Indians in this country. We get 500 years of this kind of justice, your honor, and it's sickening."
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