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Prosecutors want Butte homicide defendant sentenced to mental health facility

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Susan Criss in court

Susan Marie Criss is pictured here on May 12 with her public defender, Jamie Upham, before pleading guilty to fatally stabbing a Butte man in January 2020. A judge this week set sentencing for Oct. 5.

Prosecutors are recommending that a 25-year-old woman who fatally stabbed a man in Butte be sentenced to custody of state health officials instead of prison.

District Court Judge Kurt Krueger on Tuesday set an Oct. 5 sentencing date for 25-year-old Susan Marie Criss, who killed 49-year-old Mark William Woodger at a house on Trinity Loop in the early morning hours of Jan. 20, 2020.

She pleaded guilty to deliberate homicide in May and faces up to life in prison, but in a plea deal, prosecutors are recommending 50 years in custody of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, or DPHSS.

The agency oversees the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs and also a mental health facility in Galen for people who have been criminally committed to the department.

The plea agreement was signed by a prosecutor, Criss and her public defender, and it says Criss can argue for a sentence of not less than 40 years to DPHHS. The two sides will detail their positions during the Oct. 5 sentencing hearing.

Judges typically go along with plea agreements but they don’t have to and sometimes they do not. When Criss pleaded guilty in May, Krueger told her she faced 10 years to life and he would determine placement.

Criss has spent months at the State Hospital in Warm Springs and at one point, Virginia Hill, a forensic psychiatrist there, deemed her unfit to proceed. That was later changed and when pleading guilty, she said she understood her rights and the consequences of her plea.

Criss told police that Woodger was looking “really black and weird,” was trying to hurt her baby and then stabbed her in the arm. She said she grabbed the knife, stabbed him and he began to run around the house with the knife stuck in his neck. Her mother was also in the house at the time.

Police and paramedics arrived and Woodger was taken to the hospital but was pronounced dead shortly after 6 a.m.

According to a birth notice, Criss had given birth to a boy five days prior. Criss’ mother told police her daughter had just had a baby and “had a difficult labor and was having trouble,” prosecutors said.

The mother said she was staying with her daughter to help out and took the baby during the night because he was crying. She said she changed his diaper, laid him on the bed with her and the baby fell right to sleep. Then she heard thumping in the house.

When police arrived, they found Criss unclothed and seated next to Woodger’s head. She said her baby was in the other room and she tended to him as an officer tried to get Woodger breathing on his own.

Prosecutors are often at odds with defense attorneys on whether defendants should be sentenced to a mental health facility or prison.

That was the case with 66-year-old Lloyd Barrus, who was sentenced in April to life without parole in the Montana State Prison for his role in the 2017 shooting death of Broadwater County Deputy Mason Moore.

Defense attorneys argued that Barrus suffered from mental illness and severe delusional disorders and they wanted him sentenced to a state mental health facility.

But District Judge Kathy Seeley ruled that even though Barrus was paranoid in the days leading up to Moore’s death, he understood the criminality and wrongfulness of his actions. Because of that, she sentenced him to the state prison as prosecutors requested.

A helicopter crew conducted assessments after Hurricane Fiona made landfall on Sept. 19 in Puerto Rico.

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