Shumlin signs bill, closes legal loophole
NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON — A loophole in state law was closed Monday when Gov. Peter Shumlin signed legislation into law clarifying court jurisdiction for youthful offenders whose crimes are not disclosed until they become adults.
The new law, Shumlin and others said during a signing ceremony at the Bennington County Child Advocacy Center, is the result of a local family’s arduous effort to prevent others from being denied justice.
Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage has been trying for about a year to prosecute a 19-year-old man for aggravated sexual assault — crimes he allegedly committed as a 13-year-old. But jurisdiction has been denied by both Bennington Superior Court criminal division and the county’s family court, where most juvenile cases are heard.
Bennington Superior Court criminal division Judge David Howard has ruled the case cannot be heard in his court because of the offender’s age at the time of the offense. Judge Karen Carroll, who presides over the county’s family court, has also rejected the case, saying her court does not have jurisdiction beyond an alleged offender’s 18th birthday.
Frustrated by existing laws that allowed for the loophole, the parents of the two alleged victims agreed to help change the law. Shumlin thanked the family for their “extraordinary courage” Monday.
“Without their dedication, without their willingness to come forth, this bill would not have become law,” Shumlin said.
Moments later he signed the bill. “Congratulations,” he said. “It’s law.”
It was an emotional process for the family that drew attention to the issue, however. The father of the alleged victims, who asked that his family remain anonymous, said his family “was sent into a tailspin” when two of his children disclosed the sexual assaults. The father said he and his wife assumed there would be an orderly court process. That wasn’t the case, though, he said.
“There was no clear path, so this January when we were asked by the Child Advocacy Center to join them in Montpelier and tell our story, we accepted because this couldn’t continue,” he said.
Democratic Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the main sponsor of the bill signed into law Monday, said the family understood their efforts to seek new legislation would not help their own situation. Still, they pushed on to help others.
“We learned of a gap in Vermont law from a courageous family who came forward and said to us, ‘You’re not going to be able to do anything for us, but we don’t want what happened to our children to happen to some other children,” Sears said. “That is kind of a travesty and I just appreciate the family for coming forward. We didn’t know about this gap, quite frankly.”
The father said dealing with sexual abuse has proven to be “one of the most difficult tasks (his children) would ever attempt.”
“Our children did the right thing by telling us of their assault. They are brave and courageous. They certainly didn’t take the easy way out,” the father said.
The children were never doubted, the father said.
“Several people told us along they way: ‘Your children are lucky, you believed them.’ It amazed us that parents might not believe their children. The look in their eyes. The detail they gave. How could we not?” he said. “We never doubted their story and stuck by them fighting for change, which we’ve accomplished today.”
Shumlin and Sears thanked the Child Advocacy Center, which helps address the needs of families impacted by abuse. The multi-discipline group also includes police investigators who build criminal cases against alleged offenders.
Shumlin also hailed Sears’ efforts to shepherd the bill through the Legislature.
“There is no one that I know of in public service that has done more for vulnerable kids in their life’s work and done more for justice than Dick Sears,” Shumlin said.
Meanwhile, the family’s case continues. Marthage appealed the local rulings to the Vermont Supreme Court earlier this year. The appeal was quickly rejected on a technicality, however, and the legal merits of the case were not reviewed by the court at that time.
Marthage said Monday that she has since re-filed her appeal and is awaiting a hearing date.
Contact Neal P. Goswami at firstname.lastname@example.org