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Jim Kenyon: Taking on an Unlikely Crusade

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

James Dwinell has worked for both Democrats and Republicans during his lengthy career in politics. He was deputy campaign manager for Sen. Gary Hart’s Democratic presidential bid in 1984, and 15 years later served as executive director of the Vermont Republican State Committee.

At 73, Dwinell has taken on a job that has politics swirling all around it, but this is one assignment he’s not being paid for. In fact, it could cost him. And I’m not talking just dollars.

Dwinell is working to get Eric Daley released from prison. Not a popular cause — if the emails I’ve received after writing several columns about Daley are any indication.

Daley, 37, has been behind bars since 2003 for leading Vermont State Police on a high speed chase on Interstate 91 in Thetford and Norwich that resulted in the death of Trooper Michael Johnson, of Bradford. Johnson was outside his cruiser when Daley lost control of his sports car and skidded into the median, where the trooper was stationed after putting down tire-flattening spike strips.

Johnson, 39, was a husband and father of three young children. A 17-year state police veteran, Johnson also was a high school basketball coach. He was affectionately known as the “Mayor of Bradford.”

Although everything I’ve seen indicates the crash was an accident — albeit an avoidable one — Daley was branded a cop killer.

No doubt, Johnson’s death was a horrific tragedy. Daley deserved severe punishment. But Dwinell argues that 14½ years behind bars is enough.

By comparison, Derek Seber, a 22-year-old Norwich University student, spent 2½ years in prison after getting into a one-car crash that killed an 18-year-old female passenger in 2011. Seber pleaded guilty to drunken driving — his blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit — with death resulting and no contest to fleeing the crime scene.

Seber has been out for a couple of years. Meanwhile, Daley still has more than 10 years remaining on his minimum sentence.

“What’s happened to Eric just isn’t right,” Dwinell told me. “He shouldn’t still be in prison.”

To that end, Dwinell recently began footing the bill — $3,500 so far — for a prominent Burlington defense attorney, Robert Appel, to oversee the court case aimed at getting Daley’s conviction and sentence vacated.

Daley maintains that Judge Mary Miles Teachout made missteps in the sentencing, including failing to inform him of all the charges that he was pleading guilty to.

If Appel succeeds, it would open the door to Daley’s potential resentencing. His current 25- to 33-year term might be significantly reduced.

Teachout gave the prosecution close to the 28-year minimum sentence it had asked for, which stunned even some in the law enforcement community. They expected Daley to get 15 years. Maybe 20 at the most.

Dwinell, who grew up in Montpelier and has lived in Norwich and Randolph, where he’s now fixing up a family farmhouse, knew Daley only from what he had read in the papers.

He started sending him letters, attaching newspaper and magazine clippings that focus on criminal justice reform. “I figured it’s a lonely life in prison. It must be nice to get mail once in a while,” Dwinell said.

As unpopular as it might be, Dwinell hopes that other people will join him in the effort to get Daley released sooner rather than later. He’s using his email address (dwinell@comcast.net) to set up a GoFundMe account to help with Daley’s future legal bills.

Through letters and phone conversations, Dwinell has learned things about Daley that didn’t come out at the time of his sentencing.

Daley was a 23-year-old high school dropout and small-time drug dealer from Springfield, Vt., who had spent some of his teen years more or less homeless. When he wasn’t getting along with his mother and stepfather, Daley became a couch surfer, bouncing from one friend’s home to the next.

“Vermont is supposed to be such a progressive state,” Dwinell said, “but Eric’s case shows a lack of humanity. We should demand better from our public officials than what they’ve demonstrated in Eric’s case.

“It’s all political.”

Cases involving the death of a law enforcement officer often are. Prosecutors and judges don’t have to worry about being criticized for taking a hard line. Governors and lawmakers know that inmates seldom have advocates who can be a problem at election time.

Daley’s case is currently before Judge Robert Gerety in Windsor Superior Court. Appel told me a lot depends on how hard Windsor County State’s Attorney David Cahill wants to press the case.

“The state’s attorney has great discretion in these matters,” said Appel, Vermont’s former defender general. “It’s a matter of whether he wants to exercise that discretion.”

Appel is asking for Cahill to treat Daley’s case the same as other manslaughter cases — “a reckless homicide lacking any degree of malice whatsoever” that carry a 15-year maximum sentence.

For Appel it comes down to this: “Eric has been in prison for a long time. What’s the value of continuing to keep him incarcerated?”

On Tuesday, I talked with Cahill, who was still in law school when Daley was sentenced. If the court’s decision leads to new plea negotiations, “we’re going to have to figure out what is an appropriate sentence,” he said.

Most of Daley’s time has been spent in out-of-state prisons — Kentucky, Michigan and, now, Pennsylvania. A few years ago, Dwinell took a detour on his way to Florida, to visit Daley in Kentucky. Other than Daley’s parents, Dwinell has been one of his few visitors.

“I don’t know what prompted his interest in my case, but I’m thankful,” Daley told me over the phone. “When he offered to help, I was taken aback. I’ve never expected anyone other than my family to be on my side.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.