No one could have blamed Ruby Hill for wanting to see the 22-year-old man responsible for her son’s death put behind bars.
Her son, Steve Lapre, and a friend, Pamela Runnells, were walking across River Street near the Springfield Shopping Plaza one night last June when James Ribeiro’s car plowed into them. Lapre, 37, was pronounced dead at the scene. Runnells, 31, suffered serious injuries.
But Ribeiro kept on driving. He waited 90 minutes to turn himself in. “He just left my son face down on the ground,” Hill told me. “He didn’t stop. He didn’t offer to help.”
Ribeiro told police that he didn’t see the two pedestrians because he’d been distracted by the vibrating of his cellphone. Ribeiro knew he hit someone, but headed home without stopping because he “didn’t know what to do.”
Citing Ribeiro’s youth and his impulsive decision to leave the scene, Windsor County State’s Attorney David Cahill recommended a plea deal, which the judge accepted, that called for six months of home confinement and four years of probation. Any slip-up — including a minor traffic violation — could land Ribeiro in jail.
Cahill deserves credit for not taking a hard line. With Vermont taxpayers spending $62,000 a year per inmate, the state doesn’t need to lock up any more than the 1,800 or so it already has.
As enlightened as Cahill’s approach was in this case, Ruby Hill’s handling of the matter stands out even more. She didn’t go to Ribeiro’s sentencing hearing in Windsor Superior Court last month hoping to watch him being led away in shackles.
Quite the opposite.
The next day a photograph appeared on this newspaper’s front page that showed Hill giving Ribeiro a hug in the courthouse lobby. “I’ll always be upset about what he did,” she told me, “but I can’t see him spending his life in jail. He’s a kid.
“If you can’t forgive, then what?”
Hill, 57, is a Sunday morning regular at Precision Valley Baptist Church in North Springfield. It wasn’t just her faith, however, that led her to believe that Ribeiro didn’t belong in prison.
Hill understands better than most what prison can do to families. Over the years, her son had brushes with the law. She’s familiar with a Vermont prison system that dehumanizes both inmates and their families. For too many weekends, she sat on the other side of the visiting room table, prohibited from even giving her son a hug — like the embrace she gave Ribeiro.
Hill is well aware that prisons are often just warehouses. When we talked in her living room, she asked, “How can anyone succeed in life by sitting in prison watching TV?”
She’s used the tragic death of her son to become an advocate, of sorts. Steve Lapre’s best friend for many of his teenage years was Eric Daley, whom I wrote about last May.
Daley is serving a 25- to 33-year prison sentence for leading Vermont State Police on a high-speed chase that resulted in the death of Trooper Michael Johnson in 2003.
At the time, I regarded Daley the same way most others did: A 23-year-old small-time drug dealer — selling mostly marijuana — who got the sentence he deserved.
Hill saw a different Eric Daley: a kid from a broken home who did his share of couch surfing. “He went through hell as a child,” she said. “He never wanted to be home.” Her son and Daley did everything together. “They were into dirt bikes and fishing,” she said. “We’d go boating and snowmobiling.”
In a meeting with Cahill a few months ago, she brought up Daley. “He didn’t intend to do it,” she reminded the county’s top prosecutor. She recalled not getting much of a response.
After being pulled over for speeding on Interstate 91 in Thetford, Daley panicked — he had 2 pounds of marijuana in his trunk — and sped off in his Nissan sports coupe with two troopers in hot pursuit. As Daley came flying around a corner, he saw what he thought were a car’s brake lights straight ahead. He feathered the brakes to slow down, but the car skidded into the median, and flipped several times.
Daley’s car struck and killed Johnson, a 17-year state police veteran and married father of three children who had just finished tossing tire-flattening spike strips across the road.
With dust and debris filling the air, Daley said, he was unaware that his car had hit anyone. He bolted. With a friend’s help, he made it to Pennsylvania before police caught up with him. He surrendered without a fight.
Daley has been incarcerated for nearly 14 years and is now 37. He’s among 270 inmates that Vermont keeps at a for-profit prison in northern Michigan. A year ago, the Vermont Prisoners’ Rights Office filed a petition on Daley’s behalf for “post-conviction relief.” Former Vermont Defender General Robert Appel, who is now in private practice, has taken the case. He’s arguing that Daley’s sentence should be vacated because the judge made a mistake in the way it was handed down.
A technicality, perhaps. But it’s probably Daley’s last chance at getting out before completing his minimum sentence in 2029.
After hearing about what happened to Lapre, Daley sent condolences to Hill. “Ruby always let me hang out with her family,” Daley told me on the phone Friday. “She treated me like I was one of her kids.”
He still calls her every so often. “Eric shouldn’t still be in jail,” she said. “He’s done his time.”
I’m not sure how many others would agree. The U.S. criminal justice system places a heavy emphasis on punishment. Particularly when the victim is a respected law enforcement officer.
Then I think back to the photo of Ruby Hill hugging the young man who was responsible for her son’s death.
It captured the power of forgiveness — and the importance of recognizing that people are more than their worst acts.
Jim Kenyon can be reached at email@example.com.