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Jim Kenyon: After Spending Nearly 14 Years in Out-of-State Prisons, Inmate Back in Vt.

  • 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, March 13, 2018

As homecomings go, Eric Daley’s return to Vermont after 13½ years couldn’t have been more humdrum. Except for family, his lawyer and a few friends who have stayed in touch, Daley stopped existing a long time ago.

That tends to happen to people who receive lengthy prison sentences at a young age. Society writes them off. We forget — or pretend it doesn’t happen — that 90 percent of inmates will be back in our communities some day.

Daley, 38, has been behind bars since he was 23. In June 2003, he led Vermont State Police on a high-speed chase on Interstate 91 South in Thetford and Norwich that resulted in the death of trooper Michael Johnson, of Bradford.

Daley pleaded guilty — accepting a plea deal that turned out to be not much of a deal at all. Judge Mary Miles Teachout sentenced him to 28 to 33 years — arguably twice what was called for, largely because Johnson was in law enforcement.

“The identity of the victim shouldn’t control the outcome,” said Burlington attorney Robert Appel, who took over Daley’s case last year.

To ease overcrowding in prisons at home and save money, Vermont sends hundreds of inmates to out-of-state prisons. Since 2004, Daley has spent time in Kentucky, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Earlier this month, the DOC brought Daley back to the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield.

It’s a welcome change from the Pennsylvania prison in Camp Hill, or Camp Hell, as it’s known. At Springfield, he gets outdoors for fresh air a couple of times a day, even if it’s just for a short walk around the yard. On Monday, he ate fresh cantaloupe for breakfast.

Even though Daley falls under the state’s old sentencing guidelines, which cut a few years off his term for so-called good time, he’s not due out until 2029. He’ll be 49.

So why did the state bring him back now?

In 2016, the Vermont Prisoners’ Rights Office filed a petition for “post-conviction relief” on Daley’s behalf that apparently has gained enough traction that the state wants him around for potential court proceedings.

Appel, the state’s former defender general, is arguing that Daley deserves another day in court. Although the incident occurred nearly 15 years ago, the actions of state police — before Johnson was called into the chase — deserve new scrutiny.

On June 15, 2003, Trooper Michael Smith pulled Daley over for speeding on I-91 South in Thetford. Smith and Sgt. Tim Page, who arrived at the scene after Daley was stopped, continued to hold Daley long after the speeding ticket was written. They were stalling until they could find a K-9 unit to search Daley’s car for drugs. Forced to wait in his car, Daley panicked, and tore off down the highway, prompting the high-speed chase.

But Appel argues that once the speeding ticket was issued, the troopers’ business with Daley was done. Under the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, they had no right to continue detaining him.

“The extended detention was unlawful,” Appel said. “Eric wasn’t free to go when he should have been.”

After Daley was handed the traffic ticket, everything that happened later (i.e., the fatal crash; the 2 pounds of marijuana found in his car’s trunk) would be inadmissible in court, the argument goes. In a 1939 case, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurt famously called this kind of illegal evidence the “fruit of the poisonous tree.”

Then there’s the chase itself.

The two troopers’ decision to embark on the chase that reached speeds of 120 mph or more was ill advised. From the traffic stop, they knew who Daley was and where he lived. He wasn’t a violent offender who posed a public safety threat.

Three months after Johnson’s death, state police significantly revised their vehicle pursuit policy.

In 2013, the state’s insurance carrier reached a $4.5 million settlement with Johnson’s family, and court documents in the civil suit raised the possibility that state police might have erred in pursuing Daley.

None of this is meant to downplay the immense tragedy suffered by Johnson’s family. Johnson, 39, was a husband and father of three young children.

A 17-year state police veteran and high school basketball coach, he touched the lives of so many people that he was known as the “Mayor of Bradford.”

Meanwhile, Daley was a small-time drug dealer and high school dropout who didn’t have much of a home life growing up. His parents were divorced, and as a teen, he often teetered on homelessness.

On Sunday, after not having seen his son in more than seven years, Mark Daley visited the prison for the second time in as many weeks. Eric Daley said it was OK if I came, too.

“He did things that were wrong, but I don’t believe he should be in for as long as he’s been,” Mark Daley told me. “Being in any longer could do more harm than good.”

In prison parlance, it’s known as dead time. Eric Daley spends his days playing cards and Scrabble. He hopes to land a custodial job that pays a couple bucks a day.

Like many inmates, he relies on his family’s generosity to get by. His mother, who lives in the Keene, N.H., area, helps with, among other things, his phone expenses.

Mark, who talked with his son by phone once or twice a week before he returned to Springfield, helped with legal bills and essentials, such as shoes.

But money is a bit tight at the moment. Mark, 61, worked for 23 years at a Springfield manufacturing plant that made plastic piping. It closed in November.

He lives only a few of miles from the Springfield prison, which allows visitors on Saturday or Sunday for two hours. Eric Daley appreciates that his dad is making the effort.

“It helps the rest of the week go by faster.”

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