WORTHINGTON — A 62-year-old Ethiopian immigrant living in Worthington has been sentenced to about 10 years in prison for nearly killing his wife and adult daughter with a hammer.
Dessalegne Fissiha Desta was sentenced Friday in Nobles County District Court after pleading guilty to two counts of first-degree assault in the attack last May that he said was caused by his wife’s decision to go to Ethiopia for a visit without him.
The wife and daughter both had severe injuries.
In lengthy exchanges at the sentencing hearing, Desta’s family urged leniency and said they had forgiven him and contended his actions in part were influenced by his cultural upbringing in Ethiopia. Desta’s daughter wrote in a letter to the court that her father had immigrated 10 years ago to the United States “when he was old” and therefore “cannot understand the lifestyle.”
However, Nobles County Attorney Kathy Kusz argued that Desta at several hearings appeared unrepentant for his actions and at one time seemed to blame his daughter for starting the confrontation.
Kusz also argued that even though the two have recovered from their injuries, they were close to death at the time of the attack.
Originally, Desta was charged with two counts of first-degree attempted murder along with the assault charges, all of which are felonies. In September of last year, Desta signed a plea agreement that would dismiss the two attempted murder charges with the agreement he would be sentenced on the assault charges according to Minnesota sentencing guidelines.
In November, Desta attempted to withdraw his plea questioning the severity of the charges. District Court Judge Gordon Moore denied Desta’s motion last month, which led to Friday’s sentencing.
Four of Desta’s six children were present in the courtroom and not only the victimized daughter but also his wife had sent letters to Moore asking for leniency and mercy.
Kusz said the family’s position in the case is that all of the family has forgiven Desta of his crime. Kusz indicated the family said Desta had demonstrated remorse for the attack, and that he feared both the government’s and God’s punishments for what he did.
Kusz noted the family’s concern over Desta’s deteriorating health while he has been in jail since last May. She read the letter written by Desta’s wife calling him a “careful and caring man” who “wanted the best for his family.” The letter also said that she and her children had changed in the 10 years since they had immigrated to the United States.
Desta’s daughter also wrote in her letter to the judge that the May incident was spurred by Desta’s deep love for his wife and him not wanting to be separated from her when he learned she was planning a trip to Ethiopia without him.
“That night he showed his love in a different way,” Desta’s daughter wrote. However, she also noted that her father “was wrong for beating me and my mother that day.” She indicated her father was remorseful for his actions, writing “he apologizes every day. He knows what he did is absolutely absurd.”
However, Kusz noted that while the family had forgiven him, they were afraid of him getting out of jail last May and what he might do when he returned home. Kusz added that at Desta’s plea hearing last fall, he contended that his daughter threw something at him in the middle of the room before he struck her, but the evidence did not support Desta’s claim. Kusz asked for the judge to consider “how close these women came to dying, even though they are okay today.”
Kusz said Desta’s daughter couldn’t move or even scream due to her injuries. Her brother came into the apartment and dragged her out to safety. Kusz added that Desta’s wife crawled out of the apartment to seek help, and that Desta did nothing to help either woman following the attack. Kusz said Desta wouldn’t even give his daughter a tissue.
Kusz continued that in court appearances, Desta hadn’t accepted full responsibility for his actions and continued to place blame on the victims.
“While I have a hard time finding sympathy for him (Desta), my heart breaks for the family,” Kusz said.
Kusz said any sentence other than one in the guidelines agreed to in the plea deal would not be acceptable.
Defense counsel Louis Kuchera offered a number of reasons for leniency for his client, many of which were offered by Desta’s family in their letters before the defendant spoke on his own behalf. Kuchera said he had “no doubt” Desta had genuine remorse for his actions, and that both victims had requested Desta not receive prison time.
Desta thanked the court for the opportunity to speak and for the treatment he’d received throughout his case. He offered reasons for why he should receive a light sentence, requesting a sentence of one year and one day of incarceration — most of which he’s already completed.
“I was provoked,” Desta said in regard to his actions. “That was the only reason I assaulted them. … (I’d) never seen such decision from my wife, and it is unacceptable in my culture. That is why I lost my mind. … I can’t take it back. I can only ask them to excuse.”
Desta thanked both of the victims and the rest of his family for their support and forgiveness.
“If given the chance, I will do whatever it takes to heal your heart from its wound,” Desta said.
He said his actions last May had “disrupted their peaceful way of life instead of supporting it.”
Desta also cited the disruption of his education due to his incarceration as one loss he suffered. He was working on his master’s degree in education and was two semesters away from graduation when he was arrested. Desta said that by being incarcerated, he’d be unable to pay back the amount of student loans he has taken out to pay for his education.
As a religious person, Desta noted, he has also been denied the ability to take communion, repent and pray to redeem himself from the sin he’d committed in attacking the women. He also said he was being given foods to eat in jail that were against what his health care provider had told him not to eat due to his diabetes.
“How long can I survive inside?” Desta asked, “God only knows.”
Desta said he felt his life was going to come to an end soon with no chance to repent for his sin.
“(I’m) only longing to repent my sins to my God,” Desta said.
“I’m at your mercy,” Desta told Moore. “I’ve already been in jail for almost a year, which is almost the minimum, so please give me the minimum.”
“Don’t destroy my physical body and spiritual life … by sending me to prison,” Desta pleaded, “For Heaven’s sake, don’t send me to prison.”
Moore explained his position on the sentence being imposed on Desta for his crime. He said it was important to recall the circumstances that had led to this case, calling them “shocking and disturbing.” He added that the scene the family faced that day was out of a “horror movie” and a “reality they are never going to forget.”
“Throughout your statement, you believe what you did was justified,” Moore told Desta.
“Only through the quick actions of your son, law enforcement and medical personnel are your wife and daughter still with us today,” Moore said. “You did nothing to help. You left it to your son to come home (to).
“(It’s) almost unbelievable for you to try to rationalize or explain that away to the court,” Moore added.
Moore noted that he’d read the letters received from Desta’s family “with great appreciation and respect.”
“You’re very fortunate, Mr. Desta, that you have family members who are willing to forgive you under these most egregious circumstances,” Moore said.
Moore also addressed Desta’s contention that Kuchera had not provided adequate counsel.
“(Louis Kuchera is) one of the most experienced attorneys in this part of the state,” Moore said, adding that he’d had the chief public defender speak to Desta after he’d requested new representation. Moore said nothing had been brought to his attention that Desta had received anything from Kuchera other than “competent and professional advice,” stating the plea deal Desta had agreed to was the “best deal you’re going to get.”
Moore said he found Desta’s concerns for his own medical conditions of diabetes, cholesterol and high blood pressure “ironic” after the medical conditions Desta’s victims endured after they were “bludgeoned” with a hammer. Further, Moore said Desta’s concerns over his education and loans “pale in comparison to the severity” of the injuries sustained by the two victims at Desta’s hands.
Moore said his was empathetic to Desta’s cultural upbringing, but pointed out that was not a justification for his actions. Moore said that thousands of women are killed in what are known as honor killings, but those actions are not acceptable in the United States “in the name of honor or a perceived slight.”
“You have life ahead of you if you choose to live it,” Moore said to Desta regarding his sentence.
Moore encouraged Desta to put the time to good use in an effort that will benefit others.
“Hopefully when you come out you’ll be a better person,” Moore concluded.