For seven months, Asma Jama avoided leaving her house. Any reluctant trip outside meant never going alone.
Since the moment last October when she said a woman slammed a beer mug into her face at a Coon Rapids Applebee’s restaurant and demanded that she speak English, she has also avoided Anoka County altogether.
But on Monday, holding on to three of her closest friends, Jama stepped into an Anoka County courtroom to hear her attacker plead guilty to third-degree assault in the attack that scarred her face and her sense of safety, and also fed into debate about anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments in the Twin Cities.
Jodie Burchard-Risch’s voice was crisp and bright, her answers almost cheery, during Monday’s hearing. When asked whether she assaulted Jama because of her national origin, race or religion, the 44-year-old Ramsey resident answered, “Yep.”
Several of Jama’s friends said they found the defendant’s tone unnerving.
“The only thing that makes me more mad was that [Burchard-Risch] was so smiley about it,” said Asha Khuriye, who attended the hearing with Jama. “You should feel shame for doing something like that.”
The plea means that Burchard-Risch has agreed to serve 180 days in jail and also faces five years of probation. If she violates any of the probation terms to be set at her sentencing hearing Dec. 20, Burchard-Risch could spend up to 37 months in prison.
The plea came on what was scheduled to be the first day of her trial in Anoka County District Court.
The plea “means she admits that what she did was wrong,” Jama said during a news conference after the hearing. “I’m grateful, and I’m glad.”
Jama, who lives in Minneapolis, was with her friends at the restaurant in Coon Rapids, chatting in Swahili, when Burchard-Risch and her husband accosted the group with verbal jabs like, “In America, we speak English,” and “Go home!”
“We hadn’t even gotten our drinks yet,” recalled Khadija Webi, who was with Jama the night of the attack.
Jama confronted the pair, and it was then that Burchard-Risch heaved her mug with “a roundhouse punch-like motion” into Jama’s face, according to police. The blow left her with a bloodied nose, cuts above her eyebrow and a gash on her lower lip deep enough to need several stitches.
Despite Burchard-Risch’s admission, her attorney, Rodd Tschida, said in an e-mail that the idea that his client punched Jama with a mug “for speaking a foreign language is fantasy” perpetuated in the media.
“The very few eyewitness accounts we had in this case of the fracas are typical of eyewitness testimony, in that they did not lend themselves well to the truth-finding process,” Tschida said.
“While the narrative that is being told in many circles is false in many respects, we would rather move on without attempting to convince the media of a boring story about an alcohol-induced fracas between two tables having nothing to do with religion.”
Prosecutors showed photos of Jama’s injuries to Burchard-Risch during the hearing. From the seats behind them, Jama leaned against her friends and cried softly.
Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo described the attack during the news conference as a “horrible crime” that stemmed from “bigotry.”
Prosecutors said the plea was a welcome resolution in the case.
“Knowing that you and the victim are on the same page makes it a best-case scenario,” said Assistant County Attorney Laura Schwartz, who handled the case.
For Jama, relief mingled with her anxiety over seeing Burchard-Risch again, she said.
“At least she admitted to being biased,” Jama said. “She agreed that what she did was based on how different I am from her.”
For the last year, Jama has spoken openly about the attack, a conscious decision on her part, she said.
“To me, this was a personal fight,” she said. “This was a hate crime.”
Living in Minnesota for 16 years has shown Jama firsthand the sharp, reverse edge of “Minnesota nice,” she said — from fielding dirty looks and middle fingers to having her face split open without provocation.
“I finally feel comfortable when I go out now — as long as I’m not by myself,” Jama said. “And I wouldn’t walk into an Applebee’s by myself now — trust me.”