- A judge sentenced an older Black woman to 6 months after a jury convicted her of assault.
- Sybil Garbow, 72, said she acted in self-defense against a white coworker.
- Garbow lost her nursing job as a result and says she’ll struggle to pay the $50,000 in restitution.
Sybil Garbow describes herself as a mild-mannered, nonviolent, and dedicated nurse of more than 40 years.
“All my references are good,” the 72-year-old told Insider. “I haven’t had a physical altercation with no nurse until now.”
Now, Garbow is preparing to report to jail. Last month a judge sentenced her to six months followed by five years of probation after a jury found her guilty of felony assault.
The judge also ordered her to pay more than $51,000 in restitution, which she said she’ll struggle to pay without a job. She’s due to report to Anoka County Workhouse, a minimum security correctional facility, on Friday. For about half of her sentence, she said she’ll be on work release as an office clerk near the facility.
From her arrest to her sentencing hearing, Garbow said she felt she was being treated differently as a Black woman in Anoka County, where the population of more than 368,000 is 80% white and fewer than 10% Black.
“If I’m the only person of color in an environment, I’m used to it because I’ve been here since 1973,” Garbow said. “But it became obvious to me that I didn’t have a strong position in this whole situation. It was scary.”
Damon Drake, the executive director of We Resolve, a local advocacy nonprofit that’s helping Garbow, agreed that the racial disparities in Minnesota may be playing a role in her case.
“We’re in the business of losing because that’s what’s going to happen the majority of the time, because it’s us against this very well-funded, well-oiled, racist system. And you rarely get a win there,” Drake said.
Garbow was working as a licensed practical nurse at Touchstone Mental Health in Fridley, a suburb of Minneapolis-Saint Paul, until mid-2021, when tensions between her and a nurse named Devlin Stitt reached a boiling point.
Insider could not reach Stitt for comment despite multiple attempts through her social media and phone calls to disconnected numbers listed under her name. Stitt’s civil attorney in a separate case declined to speak on her behalf.
As Garbow tells it, she was disinfecting a desk in an office with a can of aerosol spray when Stitt, who apparently thought Garbow was intentionally spraying her, pushed Garbow in the chest. As Garbow reached with her left hand for the desktop phone to call for help, she says, Stitt used the phone to hit her in the hand. At that point, Garbow said she struck Stitt on the head with the aerosol can and fled the room.
“I left, because I was scared, ’cause Daunte Wright had just got killed. George Floyd had just got killed. And I just had a confrontation, an altercation with a white woman,” Garbow said. “I thought, ‘I’m not letting the police take me nowhere. I’ll go and turn myself in.'”
Garbow said she told her colleagues to call emergency services for Stitt, who had a laceration on her head. Then, she said she left the facility for a friend’s house, who later drove with her to the police station.
Anoka County prosecutors charged Garbow with first-, second-, and third-degree assault with a dangerous weapon. Garbow’s defense attorney declined to comment on this story, but court records show he argued Garbow’s behavior was a “situational offense” with an “imperfect self-defense component” to it, a legal concept wherein a defendant believes they are in danger but uses unreasonable force or acts with unreasonable fear.
But Garbow said a prosecuting attorney cast doubt over the injury to Garbow’s hand and whether Stitt hit Garbow first.
“He said, ‘Well, you still shouldn’t have hit her back. You should have found a way out of there,'” Garbow said, recalling the trial. “It was no way. She was right in front of me. And when she hit me with that, and I just reacted, hitting her back because it hurt.”
Stitt also said in an amended criminal complaint that she was struck multiple times, leaving her unable to drive and work a year later. Garbow told Insider she only hit Stitt once.
During the trial, both Garbow and her husband, who is white, observed that she was the only Black person in the courtroom other than a few witnesses called on her behalf. In May, the jury, which Garbow said was all-white, found her guilty of second-degree assault. Insider was unable to confirm the makeup of the jury with either the court or the attorneys.
“It’s like I’m invisible. I don’t matter. That’s the way I feel because it was like, ‘Oh, so what, you was hurt? You could have did it yourself.’ I’m supposed to be by nature a violent person, and I was in the fight all by myself,” Garbow said. “It took all of me to sit there and listen to them people just lie on me nonstop.”
The assault conviction disqualifies Garbow from ever practicing as a nurse again in Minnesota.
“This is frightening. My career is over. As it stands, a lot of people don’t want to hire somebody 72 years old,” Garbow said, adding that she worries about her husband who has had two strokes. “If I go away, who’s going to be here with him?”
The role race plays in the Minnesota justice system
Garbow has been attending weekly group sessions with We Resolve, an advocacy nonprofit in Minnesota that works with individuals and families facing criminal charges. The group normally doesn’t work in Anoka County, but they made an exception for Garbow after receiving multiple calls from her and other community groups, Drake, the group’s executive director, told Insider.
“With Sybil being Black and the victim being white, it seemed that they were really going to make sure that they taught Sybil a lesson about coming into conflict with a white person or hurting a white person,” said Drake, who was present for Garbow’s sentencing hearing, but not the trial. “They wouldn’t even entertain that somehow Sybil was attacked first and was defending herself. They wouldn’t even entertain the thought.”
Drake said the sentence seemed harsh for an older woman with no criminal record, though the sentence was below sentencing guidelines in Minnesota for second-degree assault, which would have been about two years in this case.
“You could see that he was not moved by any of the things that the defense had raised, and he was determined to make sure that punishment was doled out,” Drake said, referring to the judge in the case. “It was a disappointment to see a woman of her age be sentenced to jail when it didn’t benefit anyone. The victim won’t be better off. Society won’t be better off.”
Judge Kevin J. Mueller declined to comment for this story, but a spokesperson from the state’s judicial branch said Mueller is a fair judge.
“He is somebody who prides himself on being a fair jurist, and indeed, in this particular instance, he deviated,” Kim Pleticha, director of public affairs, told Insider. “He departed from the sentencing guidelines, so she has 180 days instead of 2 years.”
Part of We Resolve’s mission is to provide social biographies for those in the legal system to humanize them before a judge. Letters submitted on Garbow’s behalf by family and friends described her as a gentle “voice of reason” and a “kind and caring person.”
But Garbow’s attorney, John Ganley, couldn’t open the digital file on the day of the sentencing hearing, Drake and Garbow said, so the judge didn’t see that side of Garbow that day.
Garbow said she gave her lawyer explicit permission to talk to the media. But Ganley has so far refused Insider’s multiple requests for comment. Court records show Ganley had previously filed a motion asking for probation, community service, and home monitoring in lieu of jail time for Garbow.
In a statement, the Anoka County Attorney’s Office said it “respects the verdict and decisions made by the 12 members of the jury in this case,” noting that the judge issued a lighter sentence than is usually called for in second-degree assault cases.
“If the defendant, who is represented by counsel, disagrees with any aspect of this case, she can avail herself of any and all legal remedies,” the attorney’s office said in the statement.
Still, Garbow feels that justice, in this case, was not served.
“Those people weren’t my peers,” she said. “I really feel like my rights were violated throughout this whole process.”