Minnesotan who hit Somali woman in face with glass mug admits guilt

ANOKA--Asma Jama was at an Applebee's restaurant in Coon Rapids with friends and children last fall when another patron suddenly attacked her. She was hit in the face with a glass beer mug. Her offense? Speaking Swahili. Nearly a year later, the ...

Jodie Marie Burchard-Risch, 43, was charged Monday, Nov. 2, 2015, with third degree assault for allegedly striking a woman at a Coon Rapids Applebee's restaurant because the woman was speaking a foreign language. (Photo courtesy Anoka County sheriff's office)

ANOKA-Asma Jama was at an Applebee's restaurant in Coon Rapids with friends and children last fall when another patron suddenly attacked her.

She was hit in the face with a glass beer mug. Her offense? Speaking Swahili.

Nearly a year later, the woman who hit her, Jodie Marie Burchard-Risch, stood in Anoka County District Court and pleaded guilty Monday to third-degree assault for the crime, according to Elizabeth Mohr, a spokeswoman for the Anoka County attorney's office.

The 44-year-old Ramsey woman also admitted that her actions were fueled by race or bias.

It was the same day Burchard-Risch's jury trial was slated to begin.


Jama sat in the courtroom as Burchard-Risch entered her plea. The deep cuts to her face had healed, but she said after the hearing that the pain over what happened still lingers.

She suffers occasional headaches since the attack, as well as bouts of dizziness. She also endured months of emotional distress.

But life has improved, she said. She's no longer afraid to be out in public, for example, as long as she's not by herself.

"I am so much better than what I was seven months ago," Jama said. "And I'm happy with where I am today."

Her goal in opting to speak publicly about the assault was never to become the face of a hate crime, she added. It was to spread awareness of racism.

"My intention was to bring it to light," she said. "This is what's going on, and if we don't stop it as Minnesotans or Americans, it's going to continue happening."

Burchard-Risch's attorney, Rodd Tschida, said via email after the hearing that the media had perpetuated a false narrative about his client's actions. He described what really happened as a "boring story about an alcohol-induced fracas between two tables having nothing to do with religion."

Burchard-Risch and her husband were at an Applebee's in Coon Rapids Oct. 30, 2015, when they became upset after hearing Jama, who was wearing a hijab, speaking a foreign language in the next booth, according to court documents.


Restaurant managers asked Burchard-Risch to leave but she refused. Instead she threw her beer mug across Jama's face in what prosecutors described as "a round-house punch" motion and then fled, according to testimony an investigator provided to authorities at the time.

One of the restaurant managers followed Burchard-Risch until Coon Rapids police arrested her.

Jama required 17 stitches to her nose, eyebrow and lower lip.

In court Monday, Burchard-Risch admitted to the attack, though she said she threw the mug in Jama's direction rather then intentionally hitting her across the face with it.

The assault left Jama so shaken that she later told media she was considering leaving Minnesota, despite the fact that she'd made the state her home more than a decade ago.

The ethnic Somali, who speaks English, Somali and Swahili, came to Minnesota from Kenya in 2000.

In a Minnesota Public Radio interview after the incident, Jama said she told Burchard-Risch before she was hit: "I'm home. I can speak English, but we choose to speak whatever language we want."

As part of her plea deal, Burchard-Risch was required to admit in court that her actions were fueled by race or bias.


She will receive a sentence more than two times longer than state sentencing guidelines recommend because of that aggravating factor.

Her sentencing is set for 1 p.m. Dec. 20.

Tschida said the six-month jail sentence was favorable for his client, considering she'd previously faced a year in jail for violating probation from a 2012 drunken-driving conviction by drinking alcohol the night of the assault.

He called the characterization of Burchard-Risch's behavior as a "round-house punch" as "fantasy" concocted by false accounts eyewitnesses gave to police.

He added that there was also a failure to collect important evidence at the scene, though he said that was not the fault of police.

Several community members last fall were angered that no hate-crime charges were filed against Burchard-Risch. But prosecutors said pursuing the incident as a third-degree assault crime offered a better chance of getting a felony conviction against Burchard-Risch.

That's because the highest-level charge prosecutors could pursue in Minnesota for crimes motivated by bias or hate at the time was fourth-degree assault, which is a gross misdemeanor. Third-degree assault charges, by comparison, are felonies.

The incident prompted state lawmakers to increase penalties for hate crimes this past legislative session.

Assistant Anoka County attorney Laura Schwartz, who handled the case, said Burchard-Risch's agreement to acknowledge the influence bias had on her behavior was critical to Jama.

"A standard plea wouldn't have put a spotlight on the fact that this was motivated by bias," Schwartz said. "This wasn't just an argument that got out of hand; Asma was assaulted because she was wearing a hijab and speaking another language. To be singled out and assaulted because of the language you speak or your religion makes this particularly egregious."

Burchard-Risch could not be reached for comment after the hearing.

Her criminal record includes several misdemeanors, including convictions for driving while intoxicated, without due care and at excessive speed, as well as fifth-degree assault and theft.

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