Ex-South Royalton School principal denied early prison release in voyeurism case

By JOHN LIPPMAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-07-2022 11:05 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — A former South Royalton school principal serving a five-year sentence for secretly recording teenage girls at his Sharon home had his bid to be released early from prison turned down Friday, with the judge ruling that she was not persuaded by the prisoner’s arguments that the COVID-19 pandemic had changed the nature of his sentence.

Windsor Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Mann concluded that Dean Stearns, who pleaded guilty in 2018 to two felony counts of promoting a sexual recording or image and five misdemeanor counts of voyeurism, was not being subject to unusual treatment given the challenges COVID-19 presents to prison operations, so there is no “basis to establish a reduced sentence.”

“The fact that incarceration has become more difficult as life has become more difficult is a consequence of the decisions and the actions taken by Mr. Stearns” that led to his prison sentence in the first place, Mann said during a 35-minute motion hearing held via teleconference at Windsor Criminal Division court in White River Junction.

Stearns’ appeal to seek a sentence reduction was paved by the Vermont Supreme Court, which last June reversed a decision by the lower court that had dismissed his request.

Mann, who presided over Stearns’ trial, imposed the five-year sentence almost exactly two years ago, and it also included an additional five to 10 years suspended and probation upon release. Stearns has been incarcerated since January 2020 at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vt., from which he appeared remotely during Friday’s court hearing.

In response to questions from his attorney, Stearns told the court how the implementation of protocols to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus that occurred almost immediately after he began serving his sentence in Springfield has reshaped his experience of incarceration.

Stearns said that before COVID-19 prisoners had access to various activities outside their cells, such as time to exercise in a gym, consult the law library and access a recreation room.

But COVID-19 has forced officials to isolate inmates several times to mitigate outbreaks, and Stearns said he is now frequently confined to his 57-square-foot cell up to 23 hours and 45 minutes per day.

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Most difficult, he said, is that in-person visits by family have been dramatically curtailed. Stearns said he has only been able to be visited by his wife and family a handful of times in two years compared to the weekly visits he was receiving prior to the pandemic.

“There’s no contact between inmates and loved ones whatsoever,” Stearns said.

In arguing for a sentence reduction, Stearns’ attorney said measures taken by prison officials to reduce the spread of COVID-19 have altered the nature of the sentence.

“We are here today because the sentence ordered by your honor is not, was not, the sentence imposed,” said Rebecca Turner, supervising attorney in the appellate division with the Vermont Office of Defender General, who serves as appointed counsel on behalf of defendants and is jointly representing Stearns with defense attorney Michael Shane.

Turner argued that COVID-19 has reshaped incarceration so that, for Stearns, it is “inherently more punitive in terms of the experience of serving in jail” and was therefore deserving of a “downward adjustment.”

But under questioning by Glenn Barnes, Windsor County deputy state’s attorney, Stearns confirmed that he had willingly entered into the plea deal with prosecutors and that he acknowledged he was vaccinated, boosted and has received medical treatment for such health issues as high blood pressure and vertigo.

Barnes also said that because Stearns has not yet completed the stipulated treatment program for sex offenders as required in his sentence, “we’d be releasing an untreated sex offender into the community.”

Moreover, Barnes said in handing down Stearns’ sentence, the court did note at the time “how tough life in prison would be, to be separated from family and friends and to have to spend five years in an incarcerated setting.”

After coming back from a break in oral arguments, Mann did not dwell long in denying Stearns’ appeal for early release.

“It was not a sentence that was established lightly or without full consideration of the unique facts and circumstances presented by the conduct at issue here,” Mann said.

She said that Stearns’ action constituted an “extreme abuse of trust” and violated his victims “in their most vulnerable times and places where they had every right to expect full privacy — bedroom, bathroom and shower.”

A Vermont state police detective testified during the trial that Stearns had hidden cameras in a charger in a bathroom, an alarm clock in a bedroom, a nightlight in a bathroom and in other items around his home.

Nor was the judge sympathetic to the argument how COVID-19 has made incarceration more restrictive, noting that people on the outside of prison have likewise been facing limitations on their freedom.

If Stearns wants to challenge his continued incarceration, Mann noted that he still has options such as a writ of habeas corpus or “other relief” at his disposal.

Shane, who said he is now representing Stearns pro bono, said via email that his client is “evaluating his options” and called Stearns’ sentence “an outlier given his record of community service.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.

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