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Sentence reduction denied for Mitchell man serving 18 years in prison for killing wife

“You stole the life of a mother, sister and daughter. You should be spending the rest of your life in jail with no parole," a family member of the victim said.

James Brinker is escorted by jail staff into the courtroom at the Davison County Public Safety Center on March 7. (Ellen Bardash / Republic)
James Brinker is escorted by jail staff into the courtroom at the Davison County Public Safety Center on Mar. 7, 2018 to appear for a hearing.
Mitchell Republic file photo

MITCHELL — A Mitchell man who is serving an 18-year prison sentence for killing his wife was denied a request to reduce his prison sentence on Tuesday.

After spending a little over two years in prison, James Brinker, 43, sought to reduce his sentence that he’s been serving for first-degree manslaughter, which stemmed from Brinker tying up his wife, Marie Brinker, and fastening a belt around her head to hold in place a sock that he lodged in her mouth.

Marie, who was 36 when she was killed on Oct. 17, 2017, died by asphyxia due to suffocation, a doctor determined. Brinker was arrested the same day he killed Marie and pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter on Oct. 19, 2019. As part of a plea agreement, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison with 22 years suspended.

Prior to Judge Chris Giles denying the sentence reduction Tuesday, the state called Broderick Berkhout, the brother of the late Marie, to the stand. Berkhout strongly opposed any sentence reduction and said he believes Brinker should spend the rest of his life in prison without the option of parole.

“You got 18 years in prison. Bernie Madoff got more than that for stealing money from rich people,” Berkhout said. “You stole the life of a mother, sister and daughter. You should be spending the rest of your life in jail with no parole. Yet you are only serving 18 and eligible for parole probably in 12 years.”

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While Berkhout said Brinker was "not justly sentenced," he explained the only reason the family of the late Marie accepted the plea deal that outlined an 18-year prison stint was to avoid making her two children have to testify and “relive the horrible things they had to do” on the day she was killed.

“You put a pillowcase over head and let her suffocate. Instead of calling 911, you called my two nephews. Somehow you convinced them to do CPR on the dead corpse of their mother,” Berkhout said to Brinker, who was shackled and dawning an orange prison jumpsuit. “It was a difficult decision for the family to make, and we only made it for one reason because my two nephews would have had to testify against you and relive the horrible things they had to do that day.”

According to court documents, Brinker wrapped Marie in a blanket, placed her on a mattress and tied a belt around her head to hold in place a sock he put in her mouth. Brinker reportedly later cut the belt off of Marie's head and was unable to find a pulse.

Brinker’s attorney, Chris Nipe, highlighted Brinker’s good behavior in prison since he began his prison sentence. Nipe said Brinker has earned 10 certificates in the first few years he’s been incarcerated in the penitentiary.

“Mr. Brinker has accomplished more than any defendant I’ve seen in the penitentiary,” Nipe said of Brinker’s behavior in prison. “Since he’s been sentenced, he’s completed various programs.”

Nipe also referenced a letter of recommendation in support of Brinker that was written by an individual who has witnessed Brinker’s behavior in prison. However, a state prosecuting attorney pointed out that the letter of recommendation appeared to be written by an inmate in the same prison Brinker is detained.

In response to the certificates Brinker has earned while serving time in prison, Berkhout said he didn’t care how many badges Brinker has attained, noting it doesn’t change the fact that he killed his sister and caused tremendous pain on Marie’s entire family.

Berkhout criticized Brinker’s letter he wrote to the court in support of his request for a sentence reduction, calling it two pages of “typical James Brinker malarkey.”

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“There is no remorse. There is no redemption here. It’s all about you — two pages of everything about James Brinker. You don’t even mention your victim’s name, which, oh by the way, was my sister,” Berkhout said. “I’ve seen this before. You get done beating her up, then you write some letter about how you regretted it. You bring her back, and then just beat her up again, James.”

Deputy Attorney General Bob Mayer, one of the lead prosecuting attorneys in the case, requested Judge Giles to deny the reduction and agree to follow the sentence outlined in the plea agreement. It wasn’t made clear how much prison time Brinker was seeking to have reduced.

“The victims have already given so much, and we feel that it would be very, very unfair to them to pull the rug out from underneath them now,” Mayer said.

While Brinker avoided a jury trial due to the acceptance of the plea agreement for the first-degree manslaughter charge, which is a Class C felony that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, Berkhout said he believes a jury would have found Brinker guilty of second-degree murder had the case gone to trial.

Judge Giles agreed with the sentiment that Brinker “got the benefit of the plea agreement,” and reiterated both parties involved in the matter agreed to a joint recommendation of Brinker’s sentence.

“If I had all the information available to me that was available in the presentence report, I may have been a little hesitant to accept the plea agreement, and you may have gone to trial,” Giles said. “I don’t believe you are entitled to any sentence reduction.”

Sam Fosness joined the Mitchell Republic in May 2018. He was raised in Mitchell, S.D., and graduated from Mitchell High School. He continued his education at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, where he graduated in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in English. During his time in college, Fosness worked as a news and sports reporter for The Volante newspaper.
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