Justice For Sonny Jim Highlights Need for Change
More than four years after Native rodeo legend Sonny Jim and his friend were murdered over disputed fenceposts, their killer has been convicted. And now, a family that laments the senseless deaths is going public with a call for change.
On Wednesday, May 14, a state district court judge in Grants, New Mexico sentenced Danny Stanfield to two life sentences for the 2009 shooting deaths of Jim and his long-time friend, Wayne Johnson. On top of the life sentences, Stanfield received 9 to 15 years for shooting non-fatally at a third victim. Stanfield was assigned to a mental health facility by the judge, George P. Eichwald, who made a provision for a jury trial should Stanfield ever be deemed mentally competent to participate.
Jim, of Modoc descent, was an enrolled Klamath tribal member and married into the Navajo Nation. Johnson and Stanfield were both white.
Sonlatsa Jim-Martin, Jim’s daughter, said the trial was difficult, even though it filled out the story of what happened to her father: “It was good to put all the pieces together, but it was emotional, to learn how your father’s last moments were spent.”
Still, their story is not over. For one thing, they’re not satisfied with Stanfield’s placement. Although they’re happy he received the maximum sentence in terms of years, “we don’t think he’s incompetent,” Jim-Martin said. “We think he’s been playing the system the whole time.” So in two years and periodically thereafter, Jim’s surviving family will be keeping an eye on Stanfield’s court-ordered competency hearings.
In the bigger picture, Jim-Martin’s family is determined to carry forward some lessons from the ordeal. “We feel like the whole incident could have been prevented in the first place,” she said, “and my father could be standing here with me right now.”
The trouble stemmed from a years-long arrangement between Johnson and Stanfield; Johnson had allowed Stanfield to park a trailer on his land in Grants, New Mexico for a modest rent. The two were friendly, until Stanfield began asserting more rights to the land than the arrangement afforded him. By the day of the murders, Stanfield had threatened violence to Johnson several times, and the two had gotten into fights.
Jim-Martin had known Johnson since she was a girl, and would visit him with her father. She and her siblings called him the “Chicken Man” before they knew his name, simply because he kept and bred chickens. By the time of the murders, Johnson was elderly, and Jim took care of him.
“Wayne had no family to call his own,” she said. “My dad would tell me that nobody was taking care of Wayne, and Wayne was getting bad. He started making appointments for Wayne and taking Wayne to the hospital. He would tell me, I’m taking Wayne out to Albuquerque to get some tests done, or whatever.”
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