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Jim Kenyon: The True Cost of Truth in Sentencing

  • 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.


Sunday, March 19, 2017

After serving a little over 15 years for killing his mother and firing a second shotgun blast that nearly hit his father, Laird Stanard was released from prison in 2015.

Tough-on-crime hard-liners might say that Stanard, who was 17 at time of the 1999 shootings at his family’s home in West Windsor, got off lightly.

But they’d have a difficult time arguing that Stanard hasn’t made the most of his second chance.

Stanard, now 34, has a steady job at a Burlington restaurant, working his way up to floor manager and host. He bought a car and lives in his own apartment.

He also serves on the governing board of Burlington Dismas House, where he moved when he got out. The nonprofit organization, which operates a house in Hartford, provides recently released offenders with affordable, supportive places to live while they get back on their feet.

Until last week, I hadn’t seen Stanard since his sentencing hearing in 2001, when he pleaded no contest to murder and attempted murder charges. He received a sentence of 25 years to life.

He ended up serving much less than his minimum because Vermont still offered “good time” to inmates who followed prison rules and participated in treatment programs. In the early 2000s, however, Vermont joined the national “truth-in-sentencing” movement.

The result: Offenders are locked up for longer stretches, which contributes to Vermont taxpayers spending $155 million annually on corrections — more than double the amount 15 years ago.

On Thursday morning, I caught up with Stanard at the state’s probation and parole office in Burlington, where he checks in every other week.

He wore gray slacks and a sweater vest over a blue dress shirt. His hair was short and styled with gel. He has a girlfriend.

Stanard sipped coffee while waiting nearly an hour for his name to be called for his appointment with the parole board.

When released from prison in February 2015, Stanard was placed on furlough, which comes with more restrictions than parole. A GPS ankle bracelet initially tracked his movements, and Stanard is still prohibited from leaving the state.

On Thursday, with Jonathan Phillips, his parole officer, he made his case for going from furlough to parole, a status of roughly 900 offenders in Vermont.

“He’s doing well in the community, and doing what is asked,” Phillips told the board.

The three-member panel asked Stanard about what had happened leading up to that fateful night shortly before Christmas in 1999.

Stanard, an only child, had spent many of his formative years, starting at about age 11, in boarding school. He pushed his parents to allow him to return home to attend public school.

“I wanted to be a normal teenager,” he said.

But his parents insisted he remain at Gould Academy in Maine. He blamed his father, Bill, mostly. In the years since the shootings, however, conversations with his father during occasional prison visits convinced Stanard that his anger was misplaced. Mental health counseling, which he started after his release, has also helped.

“He didn’t send me away because he didn’t love me,” Stanard told the board. “He thought it was better for me. As a teenager, I didn’t recognize that. I didn’t see all the sacrifices my parents had made for me.”

On the night of the shootings, Stanard snuck a 20-gauge shotgun, which he had taken from his father’s gun cabinet, out of the house. He then took off in his parents’ SUV.

Stanard, who didn’t have a driver’s license, had run up big bills on a credit card he’d stolen from his parents weeks earlier that had gone undiscovered.

Stanard told the parole board that he intended to hold up a convenience store, then use the cash to pay off the credit card before his parents found out.

But he never went inside the store. He spent the next few hours with friends, waiting until the wee hours to return home in the hope that his parents would be asleep. He planned to return the loaded shotgun to its cabinet, grab a few belongings and leave town in his parents’ car.

The family’s restored farmhouse, high on a hill in a remote part of town, was dark inside. He didn’t expect his mother would be waiting up for him.

Paula Stanard confronted her son.

“It was an argument that we’d had many times before,” Stanard told the board. “The difference this time — I was holding a weapon.”

He pulled the trigger. Seconds later, his father, who had been asleep, came downstairs. Stanard fired a second shot. This time, he missed.

The parole board, whose members are appointed by the governor, asked Stanard how he felt now — more than 17 years later — about what he’d done.

“I took away so much from my family,” he replied. “It’s something I can never repair. I just try to be as respectful to them as I can.”

Stanard said he stays in touch with his father, who lives out-of-state, through email and Facebook.

After asking Stanard to leave the meeting room, board members talked among themselves. Ten minutes later, Stanard learned he’d been approved for parole with several conditions, including no alcohol.

Now that he’s off furlough, Stanard is looking forward to traveling a bit. Maybe even taking a vacation.

He’s truly fortunate that he got a second chance to prove that he’s more than a violently impulsive teenager. Had he committed his horrible crime a few years later, Vermont taxpayers would still be spending about $60,000 a year to imprison a guy who has clearly turned his life around.

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