Saturday, February 15, 2014

Public Safety And The Woman Who Would Not Be A Victim

"The past is never dead. It's not even past" – William Faulkner

Faulkner’s notion that we drag the past into the present with us in order to plot our futures is just common sense. In our life’s play, perhaps the most important character, ever-present but invisible, is the lived and remembered past. We learn from the past because we do not wish to be doomed to repeat fatal errors. And this applies in a darker sense to those who have suffered grievous wrongs. The moment is never far from them, and sometimes the moment, if you are a woman who has suffered a vicious assault, is present as a recalled event, a haunting ever present horror and a future possibility.

After Deanna Pichette was assaulted by James Bartis III in December 2000, she was immediately hospitalized. This was the second go-around for Mr. Bartis, who had served six months in prison for a prior assault on Ms. Pichette, then his girlfriend. The hospital report on the injuries sustained by Ms. Pichette, as might be expected, was clinically graphic. She suffered from skull fractures, a jaw shattered on the right and fractured on the left, five broken ribs, a punctured lung, orbital fractures to both her eyes and a broken nose. It may have been a bookcase or a china cabinet brought down on her that fractured her ribs. Fear and terror brushed some of the details from her mind.

“James had assaulted me many years ago,” Ms. Pichette said, “and was sentenced to one year, I believe. He served six months. A protective order was put in place. Approximately six months after his release, on Dec. 30, 2000, he attempted to take my life. He broke into my house and waited for me to return home. He beat me for hours using anything at his disposal: the china cabinet, the TV, stereo, speakers, his fists, the phone. I sustained extensive serious physical and mental trauma. I had escaped the house twice, but he dragged me back and continued beating me. The third time I escaped the house, a snow plow truck driver saw me on the side of the road in a pool of blood, interceded and saved my life.”

“He was trying to kill me,” Ms. Pichette said. “If he had succeeded, all the hearings that followed would have been unnecessary. I would have been dead. He would have been committed to prison for the rest of his life. End of story.”

But Mr. Bartis’ imprisonment was not the end of the story. In sentencing Mr. Bartis to twenty-five years in prison, suspended after fourteen years, and five years' probation for first-degree assault and unlawful restraint, the late Judge Wollenberg noted both the viciousness of the beating and Mr. Bartis’ previous assault on Ms. Pichette.
On October 2, 2013,  Ms. Pichette received an informational notice from the Victim Services Unit of the Department of Correction (DOC):

“RE: Inmate JAMES BARTIS… “On July 1, 2011, the Connecticut General Assembly passed a provision of the Connecticut State Statutes for an incentive plan for inmates to earn credit toward achieving a reduction of their sentence and an early release from incarceration known as the ‘Risk Reduction Earned Credit Program” (RREC). This incentive plan provides for the earning of credit, by compliance with the Inmate’s Accountability Plan, good conduct, obedience to the rules and participation in programs that will prepare the inmate to return to the community.

 “This letter is to inform you that the above named inmate has a sentence that will expire on November 26, 2013 and will no longer be under the jurisdiction of the State of Connecticut Department of Correction. Upon discharge the inmate will discharge to probation.”

The communications Ms. Pichette had received from DOC were, at the very least, confusing. At no time prior to the notices was she made aware that Mr. Bartis had been received into programs that would reduce his sentence, and the letters did not state unequivocally that Mr. Bartis was participating in the RREC program that reduced his sentence by 404 days.

“I didn't feel I was given adequate notice to prepare for my safety, nor do I understand why he was being rewarded this RREC program with his longstanding violent history and the extreme violent nature of his most recent crimes. The man attempted to take my life but was unsuccessful. He let me know he had intended to kill me that night. He made the same statements to both the police and the hospital, which are documented. I understand offenders convicted of murder are not eligible for the RREC program; that is as it should be. James was eligible for the program because he had not successfully killed me. How can we reward violent offenders in this way? The pictures of me that night after the assault are very graphic and show that this was not an incident where I was ‘smacked around a bit.’ He was trying to commit murder, but the fact that he was unsuccessful does not reduce the threat he poses to society.”

After reviewing Mr. Bartis’ entire case, the Head of Probationers discovered information that WAS NOT REPORTED to persons in the DOC charged with making decisions concerning early release. Critical information had been lost in transit to agencies monitoring offenders. Oversights of this kind, Ms. Pichette feels, pose serious safety concerns: “Had Mr. Bartis been released according to the provision of the RREC program and placed on general probation, he would have slipped the very strict conditions of probation ordered by Judge Wollenberg.” Ms. Pichette had been told by the State Prosecuting Attorney's office, "It was one of the strictest terms of probation the Judge had ever imposed."   

The judge’s orders and strict specific conditions of probation had not been forwarded to the probation office: “The assigned probation officer was not aware I was the victim of his previous incarceration six months prior to the current one. The officer didn't know there was a Lifetime Standing Criminal Protective Order in place. Pertinent information the probation officer should have had was not present. She was handed a file that he was to be on general probation.”

This was more serious than the usual bureaucratic goof-up. Because Mr. Bartis’ court file did not follow him through  the usual probation process, the probation board was prepared to make a decision affecting Ms. Pichette’s safety without having at its disposal the necessary data that would have allowed the board to make a proper decision affecting both Ms. Pichette’s personal safety and the public’s safety as well.

As time rolled on, it became clear that the Risk Reduction Earned Credit program -- smuggled in an omnibus implementer bill past the usual legislative oversight committees by its architect, Under Secretary for Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Mike Lawlor -- increased rather than reduced risks for victims of violent crimes such as Ms. Pichette.

Since early release credits had been awarded retrospectively to prisoners who had not complied with their Inmate’s Accountability Plan, the bulk of inmates showered with such unmerited rewards had not earned their credits. In addition, the credits were to be made available to violent criminals, including those incarcerated for: threatening in the first degree; strangulation in the second degree; assault in the first degree; assault of an elderly, blind, disabled, pregnant or mentally retarded person in the second degree; promoting prostitution and human trafficking; kidnapping in the first degree – and arson which, following Mr. Bartis’ incarceration, would claim the lives of others in Ms. Pichette extended family. Republican legislators would laterpoint out such fatal defects in Mr. Lawlor’s program – to no avail.

Seven years after Mr. Bartis had been incarcerated for the brutal assault on Ms. Pichette, her cousin’s family was murdered by two men who, Ms. Pichette says, “were wrongly paroled.”

These two worthies were Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, convicted and sentenced for capital murder in December 2011. The two parolees set out from a halfway house, broke into a home in Cheshire, beat into unconsciousness with a baseball bat Dr. William Petit, forced his wife to withdraw money from a bank, raped his wife, raped one of his daughters, and torched the house, murdering both daughters and their mother. Like a modern day Ishmael tossed on the shore from a shattered Pequod, only Mr. Petit was left to tell the tale. Courageously and steadfastly, Dr. Petit persevered through years of trial testimony, at the end of which the two murderers were convicted of capital felony murder and assigned to death row.

A year and four months after the two murderers had been sentenced to death, the Democrat dominated General Assembly, led by Mr. Lawlor and current Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Andrew McDonald -- then the co-chairs of the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee -- abolished the death penalty for all future capital felony crimes, including terrorist acts, serial murders, multiple murders and murders of police officers and prison officials. The cowardly and campaign-conscious General Assembly left the death penalty in force for the eleven prisoners languishing on death row, firmly convinced that no judge in Connecticut would permit the state to execute a convicted capital felon in the absence of a law prescribing capital punishment for convicted murderers.

This is the recent past that hangs threateningly over Ms. Pichette. And it is not over.

It was after the murders in Cheshire had lacerated the soul of her cousin Dr. Petit that Ms. Pichette began to think seriously about penal reform, an avocation she now shares with Mr. Lawlor:

“It was then,” Ms. Pichette says, “that a lot of questions and concerns began to preoccupy me and others regarding the parole process. In June of 2012 Connecticut’s media announced the tragic murder of a store owner by a parolee allowed out of prison early; he supposedly had earned early release credits under the RREC program. It was shocking news. I was under the impression that the parole release program had been ‘revamped’ to protect the public. In October 2013, I was told my ex-boyfriend, who had twice assaulted me, was to be released early and placed on general probation due to time earned under the RREC program. Not what the judge had ordered. I don't understand how a man with a violent history incarcerated for extreme violent crimes was allowed to participate in such a program. It was at that time I found out that his history and the judge's conditions or probation were not presented to his assigned probation officer.”

The past that runs like a living fire through the bones of victims such as Ms. Pichette, a woman of great courage, is only temporarily extinguished by a presumptively firm sentence rendered in a judicial proceeding. All such sentences are seriously distorted by Mr. Lawlor’s Risk Reduction Earned Credit program, the benefits of which were dished out by Mr. Lawlor liberally and indiscriminately to violent prisoners who had never satisfied the requirements of his own program. The distortions of sentences determined by judges after arduous and lengthy trials quicken the fire in the blood. And blood MUST have a voice, heard only by those who take seriously the cry of justice in the oppressed soul.
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