Valley City Times-Record

Dramatic sentence hearing unfolds in elder abuse case

- By Iain Woessner

It was high drama in the courtroom at the sentencing of Gracious Weah, with the hearing running well over time as both the convicted Weah and the state’s prosecutor made impassione­d recommenda­tions for the fate of a woman convicted of causing injuries to an elderly patient at the Sheyenne Care Center two years ago.

Weah was convicted of two felony charges of aggravated assault and reckless endangerme­nt for an incident that saw an elderly patient at the then-Sheyenne Care Center badly injured in her ankle, an injury which was not revealed for over 15 hours.

It was clear this wasn’t going to be a standard sentencing hearing when it opened with Weah dismissing her attorney, Scott Sandness, citing her dissatisfa­ction with the defense she received and insisting her conviction was wrongful. All the same, Judge Jay Schmitz emphasized, this hearing is a sentencing hearing and they would not be litigating her case a second time. While Weah was allowed to represent herself, she was asked to assert that she understood all that was happening and that she would not be making a case for the conviction to be overturned, only to make recommenda­tions for the severity of her sentence.

The State vs Gracious Weah

It boiled down to an all or nothing contest – the prosecutio­n wanted two years incarcerat­ion for Weah, and provided two witnesses to support their recommenda­tion, an investigat­or for the Bureau of Criminal Investigat­ion, Breanne Leingang and Karen Lietz, the daughter of the victim.

Leingang was to provide material evidence to support the prosecutio­n’s assertion that Weah was lacking in remorse, had not been truthful in her presentenc­e investigat­ion and was a potential danger to other witnesses in the case, providing text messages she’d sent while in prison. Among these was a communicat­ion where Weah said she was wrongfully convicted and she wants to leave the state.

Weah shot back, saying that the prosecutio­n left out more of that message – namely that she intended to “fight for her freedom” and then leave the state.

Lietz’s testimony delved deep into the traumatic impact that followed the injuries suffered by the victim, who has since died. Lietz cited doctors who told her in no uncertain terms that the broken ankle that went untreated for over 15 hours sped up her eventual decline.

“To sit for six months and watch her leave me little by little was hard,” Lietz said.

Lietz described her mother’s condition at her death, speculatin­g that she couldn’t have weighed more than 60 pounds when she died and had a loss of appetite following the injury.

“For people who knew my mom, she was the most gracious woman … a woman of great faith,” Lietz said.

Asking to address Schmitz directly, she urged him to give a strong sentence.

“People pay attention when there’s foul consequenc­es for … actions,” Lietz said.

Lietz’s testimony was emotionall­y-charged, though Judge Jay Schmitz asked a clarifying question towards the end, asking her if she believed the defendant

had intended to hurt her mother. Lietz responded by saying:

“It should never have happened.”

Then Gracious Weah herself took the stand. She had prepared a page-and-a-half long speech, though she didn’t read from all of it. She asked to address Lietz directly and took the stand. She apologized for what happened to her mother, and then made the case for herself: she had been among the victim’s favorite nurses, she’d cared for her, fed her and given her medicine. Weah said that the conditions of the Sheyenne Care Center were a contributi­on to the victim’s decline.

“Sheyenne Care Center was a hell,” Weah said.

Weah then read from her statement:

“I may not fully understand your pain … but I can relate, I lost my grandmothe­r in a nursing home … I would be angry too,” Weah said. She went on to say:

“I am being prosecuted for something I didn’t do … I would never hurt your mother …I defended your mother.”

She said she had stood up for the victim when other nurses were unkind to her, and said multiple times that she “would never” harm the victim and professed her innocence.

“I am not a criminal.

I would never hurt your mother and do nothing for her – I would not leave you vulnerable mother in bed,” Weah said. “The nursing home was not a place for your mother.”

She claimed the victim’s injuries were not new, and others were involved with the victim that day who saw no charges.


After both sides had made their recommenda­tions, it fell on Schmitz’s shoulders to make the call, and he expressed his sense of the challenge of sentencing in this case.

“I will state straight out that I don’t believe the defendant intended to hurt (the victim),” Schmitz said. “That’s what the evidence showed.”

However, he said, the evidence also showed that she did not report the injury. Before he gave his sentence, though, Schmitz paused to turn the focus of the court on the prosecutio­n. He wanted to know why they sought so heavy a sentence for Weah, when another defendant in the same case, and at least one other witness, were given deferred sentences or not charged. The prosecutio­n had various excuses – in reference to one CNA avoiding criminal charges, she said:

“Apparently he got lucky.”

The prosecutio­n maintained that other nurses involved in the case had not demonstrat­ed the same indifferen­ce towards the victim’s life as Weah had. The backand-forth went on for several minutes, and finally Schmitz had heard enough.

“I’m going to do my sentence,” he said, noting: “This is a very difficult case…a severe injury occurred as a result of a reckless act.”

He said that in cases where somebody clearly acts with “evil intent” that it’s relatively easy to sentence. He did not believe Weah’s intentions fell into that. At the same time, he said he’s “bound by the evidence” to issue a sentence, and that this sentence needs to serve as indication that this sort of behavior, intended or not, has consequenc­es.

“Looking at the evidence that was presented … what’s got to be done to deter behavior like this,” Schmitz said. “If you do these things, it has to be dealt with.”

Ultimately, he sentenced Weah to one year, one day in prison, with credit for 54 days served, followed by three years probation. This same sentence was awarded on both charges, and would be served concurrent­ly.

“Nothing I do here will fix what happened,” Schmitz told the court, before addressing Weah. “If you’d faced up to it right away, we wouldn’t be here today … I’m sure nobody’s going to like what I say, but that’s what I see …

I think to the extend of the point you had … there was fault to spread around.”

Weah is suspended from nursing work for the duration of her sentence and probation, though she spoke up to say she has no interest in returning to the industry. The prosecutio­n also attempted to request the judge order Weah have no contact with any of the witnesses of the case, a request Schmitz appeared surprised

 ?? ?? Gracious Weah
Gracious Weah

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States