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Kenyon: Courtroom Trauma 

Other than lawyers and judges, I can’t imagine many people look forward to spending time in a courtroom. After what she went through 10 years ago, Carissa Dowd has even less reason to than most.

In 2002, Dowd sat in a White River Junction courtroom, nervously fidgeting with a pair of sunglasses in her lap, while waiting to hear what the judge and prosecutor had in mind for then 23-year-old Alan Benoit of Springfield, Vt.

On a spring evening in May 2000, Dowd had been walking on a dirt road in Weathersfield, pushing her 14-month-old daughter in a stroller with her 3-year-old trailing behind, when a stranger drove slowly past in a red Oldsmobile. Feeling uneasy, Dowd turned the stroller around and headed for her family’s place.

She didn’t get far. The Oldsmobile reappeared and Benoit stepped out of the car, clutching a tire iron. He ordered Dowd into the car. With her two daughters a few feet away in the back seat, he sexually assaulted her twice. He was arrested four hours later, largely because Dowd had given police a detailed description of his car.

At Benoit’s sentencing hearing in November 2002, I listened as Dowd urged the judge to reject a pre-trial plea deal that would have Benoit back on the street in less than five years. Dowd said she could forgive Benoit for what he had done to her, but not for what he had put her daughters through.

Dowd’s speech didn’t carry much weight with the judge, who approved the plea agreement. (Benoit was released from prison in 2007.)

Last Tuesday, Dowd was back in a courtroom. Only this time, she was on trial. Dowd had been hauled into a Lebanon court for being nine days late on a $150 back-rent payment to her former landlords, Deborah and Jon Meyer.

Dowd, 41, is a single mother who has worked her way up to an office manager’s position at Dartmouth College. On weekends, she works a second job at King Arthur Flour.

An unexpected car repair and a propane fuel bill caused her to be tardy on her monthly payment (more on that later) to the Meyers, she told me. “I knew I was cutting it close, but I just didn’t have the money to pay them. October was a hard month for me.”

The Meyers received Dowd’s check in the mail on Oct. 11. By then, however, they had filed a “motion for contempt” against her. After receiving the check, the Meyers could have easily withdrawn the motion, but they continued to press the matter.

If found in contempt, a court clerk explained to Dowd, she could go to jail. “I’ve been living with that for two months,” Dowd said.

How did she get in this predicament?

In 2009, Dowd, who was divorced in 2005, rented a two-bedroom apartment in Enfield from the Meyers. When the lease expired in June 2010, they asked her to renew for another year at $775 a month.

According to court documents, Dowd believed she had a “verbal agreement” with the Meyers that allowed her to break the new lease if she needed to move to be closer to her daughters’ schools. (The Meyers informed the court that “we never had such an agreement.”)

In October 2010, Dowd and her daughters moved out of Enfield. “I had to,” she said. “I had no way to get my kids to school.”

The Meyers filed suit against Dowd, seeking $6,800 in rent, plus late and cleaning fees. (The Meyers said they didn’t find a replacement tenant until June 2011 and had to reduce the rent by $85 a month.)

In June, Dowd and the Meyers arrived at the courthouse to settle their dispute. Neither side brought lawyers. Standing before New Hampshire Circuit Court Judge Albert Cirone Jr., Dowd’s memories of being in a courtroom a decade ago came flooding back. “I just froze,” she said.

She didn’t do a good job of presenting her case. The judge ordered her to pay $150 a month (the Meyers had requested $500) and also take out a $1,000 loan (another demand of the Meyers) from Dartmouth until the $7,100 debt was paid off.

At Cirone’s request, Dowd wrote a letter to the court that spelled out her financial situation. She included some personal history, too. “My only experience with a courtroom was after having been kidnapped and raped by a stranger in 2000 in front of my children, so to even be in a courtroom is a very challenging ordeal for me and I was unable to clearly put a sentence together to defend myself,” she wrote. “I apologize for being unable to communicate my case to you because of my past trauma in the courtroom.”

I asked the Meyers if they had seen Dowd’s letter. They had. Apparently, they weren’t moved. “We’re just interested in getting paid what we’re due,” Jon Meyer told me.

At last Tuesday’s hearing, Cirone said he wouldn’t consider the Meyers’ motion for contempt since Dowd was “back on track” with her monthly payments.

The Meyers, who own six apartments in Enfield, weren’t done. They wanted the $5,431 that Dowd still owes them sooner rather than later. “We’re small landlords,” Deborah Meyer told me. “We’re not wealthy people.”

Neither is Dowd. That didn’t stop the Meyers, though, from requesting the court order Dowd to start paying them double — $300 a month — until the debt was paid. Cirone would only go to $250. Dowd didn’t object.

Sitting in the courtroom last Tuesday, I wondered why Dowd didn’t stand up for herself. Then it hit me. She had no confidence that the judicial system would consider her voice any more than it had 10 years ago.

Getting out of that courtroom as quickly as possible was the best outcome she could hope for.