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Jim Kenyon: A Second Chance at Less Time

  • 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.


Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Eric Daley went to prison when he was 23 after leading Vermont State Police on a high speed chase that resulted in the death of Trooper Michael Johnson in 2003.

Daley pleaded guilty to a bunch of charges, including involuntary manslaughter, for which Judge Mary Miles Teachout sentenced him to 26 to 33 years. Even some cops were surprised at the sentence’s severity.

After 15½ years behind bars, Daley, now 38, is seeking to have his sentence vacated due to “ineffective assistance of counsel.” This week, Daley learned that his fate likely will be decided at a one-day court hearing in February.

If a Vermont Superior Court judge grants Daley what is known as post-conviction relief, he could have a new sentencing hearing. In that event, his attorney, Robert Appel, of Burlington, could argue for something less than the 26-year minimum sentence that he’s now serving. If he loses?

“I’ll be looking at another 11 years,” Daley told me.

Other than to Daley — and to Johnson’s loved ones — why does any of this matter?

His case speaks to how far Vermont has come — or hasn’t come — in the last 20 years in making the state’s criminal justice system more about rehabilitation than retribution.

At the time of Daley’s sentencing in 2004, I wrote that he had gotten what he deserved. He was a high school dropout from a broken family in Springfield, Vt., who spent part of his teenage years living on friends’ couches. He became a small-time drug dealer who sold mostly pot.

The 39-year-old Johnson, meanwhile, was a husband and father of three young children who lived in Bradford, Vt. The “Mayor of Bradford,” as Johnson was known, also coached high school basketball.

Three years ago, I met Daley during a visit to the private prison in northern Michigan where Vermont then was warehousing 200 inmates. My thinking about Daley’s sentence — and the need to alter our approach to criminal justice, in general — has evolved over the years.

I’m no longer sure how society would benefit from keeping Daley locked up for another decade. Enough is enough.

If Vermont and other states are serious about criminal justice reform, we must question why we’re so quick to incarcerate people for lengthy periods. Are we afraid of what offenders will do once back on the street? Or are we just angry with them for the irreparable harm they’ve caused?

I’d say that Daley falls in the latter category. In his case, politics also are in play. Judges and prosecutors know they won’t be criticized for playing hardball in cases that involve the death of a law enforcement officer — even when it was unintentional.

“The emotionalness and the fact that (Johnson) was a cop and beloved member of his community shouldn’t control the outcome of the case,” Appel said.

Daley was sentenced at a time when “retribution was what society was all about,” he added. “Now it’s time to ask, ‘What’s enough?’ ”

After serving 13½ years in out-of-state prisons, Daley returned to the Southern Vermont Correctional Facility in Springfield last spring. He works the overnight shift in the prison’s laundry, which pays $1.25 a day. He plays the guitar during Thursday evening church services.

“I took guitar lessons in Kentucky 13 years ago, and I’m still not very good,” he said with a laugh when we talked on the phone the other day.

In some states, Daley might be close to being out of prison by now. Vermont, however, eliminated so-called good time, which enables offenders to lop significant time off their sentences through good behavior and participating in treatment and educational programs.

Since he went into prison before good time was done away with a dozen or so years ago, Daley was eligible to have 7 to 10 years taken off his sentence. But the state didn’t do him any favors. It took seven years off his maximum sentence (33 years) instead of taking it off his minimum (26 years).

I’ve talked with Windsor County State’s Attorney David Cahill about the case a fair amount. I sense that he’s a bit torn. Although we don’t always agree, I’ve found Cahill to be a thoughtful prosecutor who doesn’t view his job as merely locking people up and throwing away the key.

Cahill wasn’t involved in the original prosecution, but he sat down with Daley earlier this year for his deposition in the appeal case. Cahill told me that he found Daley to be “thoughtful and mature.”

Although Daley didn’t have much of a criminal record prior to 2003, Cahill points out that he was involved in a 2000 crash after being pursued by Springfield police for a traffic violation. Cahill said records show that Daley received probation but failed to complete a restorative justice program.

The sentence that Daley received in 2004 is about as “stiff as it gets,” Cahill acknowledged. But he doesn’t think that it was due to Johnson being a cop.

“It is not a simple story of favoritism toward police,” Cahill emailed. “It’s about how we respond (or did in 2 004) to young adults who lack the maturity or emotional intelligence to engage in a rehabilitative sentence and then engage in further behavior that is both self-destructive and harmful to others, in this case extremely harmful to others.”

I asked Daley about it.

“I was a dumb 20-year-old,” he said. “I’m not the same person I was then.”

Exactly.

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