'This family lost a mother,' judge says, as Brinker gets 18 years for manslaughter

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 March 7. (Ellen Bardash / Republic)

A Mitchell man was sentenced Tuesday afternoon to serve 18 years in prison for killing his wife in 2017.

James Brinker, 41, was given credit for the more than two years he spent in the Davison County Jail between his October 2017 arrest for the death of 36-year-old Marie Brinker and his sentencing, where 22 years of a 40-year sentence were suspended as part of an agreement Brinker made with the state when he pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter on Oct. 29.

Also on Oct. 29, Brinker admitted that committing the crime of manslaughter was a violation of the probation he was sentenced to in April 2017 for drug possession. His originally suspended four-year prison sentence was imposed Tuesday and is set to run concurrently for his sentence for manslaughter, with credit for 118 days served in jail.

"This family lost a mother; they lost a daughter; they lost a sister," Judge Chris Giles said at Brinker's sentencing hearing. "It has been emotionally devastating, especially for Marie's two sons ... There is nothing this court can do as a part of this sentence that would bring Marie Brinker back."

Prior to Giles imposing a sentence, the state called as witnesses Marie Brinker's father, Jan Berkhout, and brother, Broderick Berkhout, who read statements directed to the court and Brinker. Both said they wanted to speak to Marie's reputation, which they felt was damaged throughout the course of Brinker's case by false assertions that Marie, who they knew as Mimi, may have been suicidal.


Jan said on the day of Marie's death, Brinker had called him and asked what to do, as he said Marie was unresponsive and incoherent. He said Brinker hadn't mentioned pills or suicidal statements.

"I don't believe that Mimi ever had a suicidal thought in her head," Jan said.

Broderick testified that before Marie's death, he had talked to her and she had agreed she would leave Brinker. He said Brinker claimed Marie had hit her head during a seizure and that Brinker had shown her sons an empty pill bottle to suggest she may have overdosed rather than admitting to beating her, putting a sock in her mouth and tying a belt around her head when he became angry with her.

"You restrained her until she suffocated, and decided to take a nap in the middle of it for good measure. And then you tried to hide it. And you involved innocent children in your ruse," Broderick said to Brinker before sentencing. "... You said you wanted to protect her from biting her tongue. She had dentures, James. You knew that. You could've taken them out."

Chris Nipe, one of Brinker's attorneys, asked the court to keep in mind the Brinkers' relationship before Marie was killed, which he said involved Brinker taking care of Marie, who had multiple sclerosis and other medical conditions, as well as the three children in the house.

"I don't want the tragic ending to the story to obliterate the whole story," Nipe said.

Brinker spoke briefly before he was sentenced, saying he was sorry for his actions and wished he, Marie and the three children could be reunited.

Deputy Attorney General Bob Mayer indicated that an hour and 45 minutes before the hearing began, the state learned Brinker had mailed a letter to Marie's family members. As a condition of the 22 suspended years of his sentence, Brinker cannot have contact with Marie's sons, parents or brothers, which would include any similar letters in the future.


Also as a condition of the suspended time, Brinker must make efforts to pay restitution as ordered.

That restitution includes $28,425 to the Crime Victims Compensation Fund for Marie's sons' counseling expenses and $8,000 of her funeral costs; $5,000 to Broderick for travel expenses; $3,758.65 to the Davison County auditor; and $3,000 to Jan for funeral costs paid out of pocket.

Brinker was also ordered to pay $104 in court costs, amounts previously ordered in the drug possession case and court-appointed attorneys' fees and expert expenses, the total cost of which has not been finalized or made public but which Giles said will likely be "very, very significant."

Giles said he didn't have the authority to order Brinker to pay Broderick an additional $64,129.26 for his case to get guardianship of Marie's sons or $119,847.08 for wages he said he lost when he had to retire from his position as a naval submarine captain in order to make frequent trips to South Dakota after Marie's death.

In his statement, Broderick said he wanted to tell victims of domestic violence not to rely on protection orders, law enforcement, family or social services to protect them.

"My sister used all of these, to no avail," he said. "Do not succumb to the myth that he loves you ... When you say 'but I love him,' you might as well be writing your death sentence."

He also said he felt South Dakota hadn't done justice for his sister.

"It is my opinion that, quite frankly, there is an underincarceration problem for violent crime," he said, comparing Brinker's 18-year prison sentence to the 150-year sentence Bernie Madoff was given in 2009 for operating a Ponzi scheme. "... In my humble opinion, justice is not being served when someone who takes someone's life receives less time than someone who takes someone's money."

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