JAMESTOWN, N.D. — The husband of the victim of an assault and attempted murder at the North Dakota State Hospital in March 2019 told the court Wednesday, March 4, that the incident had devastated his family.
The testimony came during a bench trial in Southeast District Court in which Jason Benefiel, 32, was found not guilty because he lacked criminal responsibility at the time of the crime. The North Dakota Century Code says an individual lacks criminal responsibility when he or she does not have the "substantial capacity to comprehend the harmful nature or consequences of the conduct."
Benefiel was accused of choking, striking and kicking Chrissy Eastman, a janitorial employee, at the North Dakota State Hospital on March 29, 2019, while he was a patient at the facility. He was charged with attempted murder, a Class A felony, and two counts of aggravated assault, Class C felonies.
During the hearing, the victim and her family were given the option to address the court. Charles Eastman, husband of the victim, spoke to the court.
"I want to let the court know what he did, whether sane that day or not, destroyed our family," he said, growing emotional as he spoke. "I have a 10-year-old daughter I might have had to take care of myself."
Watching Benefiel walk into the courtroom Wednesday for the hearing was traumatic, Chrissy Eastman wrote in a message to The Jamestown Sun. She chose that method of communication because talking on the phone about the incident causes anxiety.
“I felt like I lost my breath when he walked into the room,” she wrote. “I wasn’t expecting him to come through the door right next to me. I could feel my heart racing and my body froze. I couldn’t look at him.”
After recovering from her injuries last year she attempted to return to work at the State Hospital. Her return to work included restrictions that she had to work with another person for safety and not work with patients, Eastman said. She said the State Hospital terminated her from the position in February, saying they could no longer accommodate those requirements.
“I found it to be very upsetting that the hospital that serves mentally ill patients chose to terminate me over my now mental illness with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” she wrote.
A request for comment from the State Hospital was referred to its legal department, which did not immediately respond.
Eastman's testimony came after both sides in the case stipulated Benefiel had committed the acts he was accused of.
The court also accepted three mental health evaluations that all found Benefiel lacked criminal responsibility at the time of the incident.
Judge Cherie Clark found that Benefiel had committed the crimes as charged.
"However, the court further concludes that he was not criminally responsible," she said.
Clark ordered Benefiel be committed to the North Dakota State Hospital for an evaluation and scheduled a final disposition conference for 11 a.m. on May 5. Clark said if he is found mentally ill or is considered a threat to commit additional criminal acts, he could be ordered to a treatment facility for up to 20 years.
The maximum penalty for a Class A felony such as attempted murder is 20 years of incarceration.
Eastman said he had concerns Benefiel will harm others.
"I don't want this to happen again, but I fear it will," he said.
Benefiel was given an opportunity to address the court and victim but declined.
Scott Sandness, court-appointed defense counsel, called it a "hard case" and offered his deepest condolences to the family.
Clark told the victim that the not guilty verdict did not "lessen or negate what happened to you."