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Brooks gets 35 years for Fortenberry murder

Last week, Jeffery Allen Brooks, 53, of Alexandria, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for the murder of Diane Fortenberry of Osakis.

Fortenberry, 51, was beaten to death by Brooks after she walked in on him burglarizing the family's home in rural Osakis on May 20, 2011.

The sentencing hearing was held last Tuesday in Todd County District Court and marked an end to a year-long legal journey marked with accusations of misconduct on the part of court appointed attorneys and a failed attempt to change Brooks' guilty plea.

The Fortenberry family said the judgment was less than desired, but in some small measure, it brought about some closure for the family.

The victim's family asked the court to deliver the maximum sentence allowed by law - 40 years. They were also allowed to provide impact statements to the court on Tuesday.

It was an emotional time for all who were gathered in the courtroom, for the family and Brooks too, as he sobbed, sometimes uncontrollably throughout the proceedings.

"One of our greatest treasures is not here," said Becky Hensley of Osakis, a friend of Diane's. "Her bright shining smile could light up a room, warm anyone's heart and in turn make anyone smile.

"That day, Mr. Brooks left a husband without his best friend, children without a mother, a mother without her child and families throughout this community terrified," Hensley said. "There's nothing that can bring back Diane, there will never be enough justice."

Terri Fortenberry, Diane's sister-in-law, also spoke of the great loss the family was feeling.

"The death of Diane has devastated our entire family," Fortenberry said. "I had no sister of my own so she was my sister.

"Our sense of safety at home has changed forever. It's been a difficult year for all of us. The death of Diane has devastated my brother, nephews and my entire family," she said.

Michael Fortenberry, Diane's husband, then spoke on behalf of their son Colter, who was the first to find his mother after the incident - Colter wrote: "The impact this event has had on my life has been devastating. This man took away the most important person in my life. I was in a state of shock for weeks. Because of the brutality I witnessed on my mother the day I found her, it has made it hard to remember all the good times I had with her because those terrible images keep popping into my head."

Michael then spoke on his own behalf, finally getting his chance in open court to confront his wife's killer.

"I lost my best friend," Michael said. "This woman basically saved my life when I was a young man. I found my true friend, the woman I wanted to stay with the rest of my life. We had plans and goals for our retirement years.

"She always felt so safe coming home to her house.

He said they felt so safe at their home in Osakis that they never locked the doors. That if anybody ever wanted something, they could take it.

"[Brooks] is a career felon that has changed lives forever. I was home at 9:30 that morning. It's a shame you didn't come to meet me, it would've been a different outcome," Michael said, addressing Brooks directly.

"Every day I live with Diane's dead body going onto a gurney in my face, seeing her grey face, knowing that I'd probably never get to tell her I loved her again and that I'd miss her."

Michael went on to explain that the family was able to find some solace in that they were able to bring her ashes to Yellowstone, just in time for what would have been their 20th anniversary.

"She'll always be a guardian angel for me and I'll always know that she's looking out over us," Michael continued. "I can't bring her back and take the pain away from my children. They'll never get to have a mother at their graduation, their weddings, the birth of their children. Diane was the best thing I've ever seen in my life as far as a person goes."

Even those who spoke on behalf of Brooks offered their heartfelt apologies and prayers for the Fortenberry family. They too spoke of the man they knew, the man they thought wasn't capable of killing someone.

Lifelong friend Pastor Lynette Orr was the first to speak on behalf of Brooks.

"We have pastors praying all over the country for you, especially your boys," Pastor Orr said. "We are so sorry."

Roosevelt Mansfield, Brooks' nephew, commiserated with the pain the Fortenberrys were feeling.

He said, "I'm a husband, I have kids, just seeing you guys, sorry, I understand your anger from the bottom of my heart. This is so outside of [Brooks'] character. My uncle deserves his consequence. I couldn't imagine how you guys feel.

"God is the ultimate judge, and when all is said and done, I believe justice will be served. And I will continue to pray for you guys," he said.

Plea for

maximum sentence

Judge Jay D. Carlson then offered the state's prosecution the opportunity to present their argument for the maximum penalty.

"It's difficult to put into words just how devastating the crime was, this was to the family, and to the community," said lead prosecutor, David Voigt.

Voigt continued, offering some background on how the Fortenberrys moved to Minnesota after losing their home in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

"They moved so they could be safe. They were living that idyllic life until that one day when the defendant came and snuffed it all out," he said.

The prosecution went on to explain how the sentencing system in Minnesota is set up to allow an inmate to come back and be a productive member of society if they serve out their sentence and show good behavior.

Under current sentencing guidelines, the maximum sentence of 40 years wouldn't qualify Brooks for parole, he would be let out after serving two-thirds of his time with good behavior.

"We don't make that request lightly," the prosecutor said. "If you look at Mr. Brooks and if you look at his history he is someone that a system like that doesn't work for. If you look at the types of crimes he's committed, they've only grown more serious with time. Your honor, you couldn't have a better candidate for a maximum sentence."

Defense's argument

Then, it was time for the defense to present their argument for a reduced sentence.

Brooks' court appointed attorney, Jim Austad, argued that nothing in his past was violent in nature. And that he never laid a hand on a woman before.

"There was no torture. He had no interest in causing the pain that has prolonged these proceedings. This isn't Jeffrey Brooks, that's what everybody says. He didn't intend the result. He had to think in his mind that he wanted her dead. What happened that day was senseless, sad," the attorney said.

Brooks speaks

Judge Carlson then allowed Brooks the opportunity to speak on his behalf.

"I would first like to say I'm sorry," Brooks said, sobbing.

"I know I could say I'm sorry a trillion times and it wouldn't be much good because it wouldn't bring Diane back. In those seconds that went by, if I could trade my life for hers I would do it, in a heartbeat. There's nobody in the courtroom that feels worse than I do. It's a tragedy, Diane didn't deserve this.

"I didn't mean to kill her. This is something I'm going to have to live with for the rest of my life and there is no sentence that could be worse than that to me. I understand the hatred, I understand the pain and I understand everything you said to me. I don't blame you. I'm sorry that you can't grow old together, I'm sorry I took your best friend from you."

Sentence

Finally, after an hour of statements, Judge Carlson delivered the court's sentence to Brooks.

"In this case you have committed a very violent crime that has caused unimaginable suffering, pain and sorrow to the family," Carlson said.

"You've also made everyone in the community a victim. They no longer feel safe and secure in their home. The court does believe that one significant factor in the case is that you've consistently not denied committing the crime and have expressed your remorse."

Carlson ordered Brooks to serve 420 months in prison with credit for 381 days he's already served in Todd County Jail.

A total of 280 months must be served and 130 months may be served under supervised release. If Brooks has even one behavioral infraction in prison, he will be forced to serve out the remainder of the 35-year sentence.

Brooks must also submit a DNA sample for testing and pay restitution to the family.

"The brutality of the offense gave every right for the family and the state to request the maximum sentence in this hearing," Carlson said.

He told Brooks, "The court does find significant your acceptance of responsibility and not going to trial in this case."

Osakis Review Editor Amy Chaffins contributed to this article.

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