In a state that sees relatively little violent crime, the murder of a police officer is especially sensational. A state District Court judge in the North Dakota capital city of Bismarck, N.D. has sentenced the murderer of a Bismarck city police officer to the statutory maximum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. North Dakota has no death penalty in state law.
Bannister sentenced to life in prison for murder of Bismarck police officer
1 hour ago • By JENNY MICHAEL | Bismarck Tribune
The man who shot and killed Bismarck Police Sgt. Steve Kenner will spend the rest of his life in prison.
In a packed courtroom Tuesday afternoon, South Central District Judge David Reich gave Steven Bannister the maximum sentence allowed by North Dakota law for the longtime officer's murder — life in prison without parole. North Dakota has no death penalty in state law.
"Mr. Bannister didn’t just make a mistake. He made a choice," Judge Reich said. "It was a senseless act of violence, and it took away a husband, a father, a friend and a law enforcement officer."
Bannister shot and killed Kenner when the 32-year officer responded to a domestic dispute on July 8, 2011. Bannister entered an Alford plea in June to the murder charge, acknowledging there was sufficient evidence to convict him of the Class AA felony but saying he had no memory of it.
Burleigh County State’s Attorney Richard Riha advocated for the maximum sentence. Bannister watched officers arrive and shot at Kenner without provocation, Riha said.
“This was nothing short of an ambush,” he said.
Riha and Assistant State’s Attorney Lloyd Suhr went through Kenner’s human resources file, sifting through 126 letters from defendants thanking him for arresting them and helping turn their lives around, family members thanking him for comforting children or stopping suicides, and other people acknowledging good acts during Kenner’s long career.
“It’s clear that this community lost a good and faithful servant,” Riha said. “If this case doesn’t call for a maximum sentence, I don’t know what does.”
Bannister’s court-appointed attorney, Steven Mottinger of Fargo, asked for a 25-year sentence. Bannister is in poor health and should get a second chance, Mottinger said.
“I suspect that if you adopt the state’s sentencing recommendation, there would be many that would take the position that it is well deserved, and there really weren’t any other options,” Mottinger said.
Bannister didn’t plan for the shooting to occur, Mottinger said.
“I don’t see him as a bad man, judge. I see him as a person who made a bad mistake — who made a terrible mistake,” he said. Mottinger said Bannister has things to offer the community, though he also said, “I can’t put my finger on one right now.”
Bannister, stuttering as he tried to speak, apologized.
“I would like to say I’m sorry to the Kenner family. I’m sorry,” he said. “That’s all.”
Reich said Bannister’s criminal history, though not as long as many other defendants who come before him, contained troubling elements of violence, alcohol, weapons and disrespect to law enforcement, all of which were on display the night of Kenner’s death.
The courtroom was filled with Bismarck police officers, in and out of uniform, along with Kenner’s and Bannister’s family. Kenner’s wife and other family members sobbed as the hearing ended.
Bismarck Police Deputy Chief Dan Donlin spoke on behalf of the police department after the hearing. His voice wavering as he spoke about his longtime colleague, Donlin said officers will continue to remember Kenner every time they put on their uniforms and do their jobs. He said the department appreciates the support of the community and will continue to protect the people of Bismarck.
“The criminal justice system has done its duty,” he said.
Officer Brad Jerome, who shot Bannister in the head after Bannister shot Kenner, said Bannister’s sentence gave him a sense of closure. He said he thinks daily about the fact that Kenner can no longer go home to his children.
“It’s tough,” he said. “It’s tough. But I know Sarge himself would have kept plugging away.”
After the hearing, Riha said prosecutors always planned to ask for the maximum sentence in the case. He said they had to set aside the fact that they knew and had worked with Kenner, and they only thought “for about a half a second” of turning the case over to prosecutors in another office.
“We felt like we wanted to do it justice,” he said. “Officers like Steve Kenner, you can sleep well at night knowing they’re out there.”
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