Accomplice in killing of Savanna Greywind gets 20 years

William Hoehn during his trial on Sept. 26, 2018 in North Dakota.
William Hoehn enters the courtroom on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018, in Cass County District Court in Fargo, N.D., during his trial on a charge of conspiring to murder Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, whose baby was cut from her womb.
David Samson/AP file

A man whose life sentence was overturned in the death of a North Dakota woman whose baby was cut from her womb was re-sentenced Monday to 20 years in prison after he apologized and pleaded for leniency in front of a nearly empty courtroom.

There were no apologies from East Central District Judge Tom Olson for the life sentence he gave to William Hoehn last year for his role in the 2017 killing of Savanna Greywind, only for the state Supreme Court to overturn it on appeal.

"I want to sentence you to as long as I can by law," Olson told Hoehn. The judge somberly noted that Greywind's child, who survived the attack, will still be in high school when Hoehn is eligible for parole, although his exact release date will likely be decided by the state Department of Corrections.

"That is something that has struck in all of us," prosecutor Leah Viste said afterward.

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The state Supreme Court ruled in August that Olson had mistakenly deemed Hoehn a dangerous special offender based on his previous crimes, which would have made him eligible for a life sentence, and said Olson shouldn't have strayed from maximum allowable sentence of 21 years. Olson handed out the maximum the second time around — 20 years for conspiracy to commit kidnapping and one year for lying to police — but said state statutes forced him to allow Hoehn to serve the sentences at the same time.

Hoehn pleaded guilty to those two charges, but he was tried and acquitted in September 2018 on a third charge, conspiracy to commit murder. His lawyer argued that Hoehn's girlfriend, Brooke Crews, was the mastermind behind the killing and that Crews admitted she had sliced Greywind's baby from her womb. Crews pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Viste believed Hoehn could have received the full 21 years but said Olson "read the law differently" and she wasn't going to quibble over something "not terribly significant."

Before the sentence was pronounced, Hoehn apologized to the Greywind family even though none of them appeared to be among the fewer than a dozen observers in the courtroom.

"I think about and pray for them every single day. Every day," Hoehn said, beginning a five-minute speech that Viste said "fell flat" with her.

Hoehn showed little reaction after being sentenced, although his attorney, Scott Brand, said in an interview that his client was "quite distraught." The two men chatted for several minutes at the end of the hearing about possible next steps, which Brand said could include an appeal.

"As I described it in the courtroom, no matter what happens today, the community is still going through a huge loss that's going to take years to recover. As Judge Olson said, they might not recover," said Brand, who recommended a sentence of seven years in prison and five years of probation.

Gloria Allred, an attorney for the Greywind family, said last month that Savanna's relatives were "disappointed and upset" about the state Supreme Court ruling and were hoping that Hoehn would receive the maximum sentence on Monday. Viste said Allred emailed her earlier and said the family would not attend the hearing but did not give a specific reason.

"I believe they're probably just tired," Viste said.

Greywind was a member of the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe and her family has ties to the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, two North Dakota tribes that traveled to the Fargo area to search for Greywind after the attack. Her death prompted former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp to introduce Savanna's Act , which aims to improve tribal access to federal crime information databases and create standardized protocols for responding to cases of missing and murdered Native American women. The bill is currently in limbo.

Hoehn's murder trial seemed to turn on gripping testimony from Crews, who told the court that she had pretended to be pregnant because she was afraid of losing Hoehn and that when he figured out she was lying, he told her she needed "to produce a baby." Crews said she believed this was "an ultimatum."

Crews said she never "explicitly" told Hoehn what she planned to do, and that he appeared surprised when he arrived home to find a newborn and a bleeding Greywind in their bathroom. But she said after discovering the bloody scene, he fetched a rope and twisted it around Greywind's neck to make sure she was dead, an assertion that was disputed by a fellow inmate of Crews who testified Crews told her in prison that she handled the rope by herself.

Hoehn testified that he had believed Crews when she told him she was pregnant and that he had been elated when he returned home and heard a baby crying.