Crime and Justice

Tinmouth residents voice frustration, anger to prosecutors

TJ Donovan

Attorney General TJ Donovan speaks to residents in Tinmouth on Sunday. Photo by Alan J. Keays/VTDigger

TINMOUTH — Tami Carboni-Branchaud told Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan that more needs to be done to take repeat offenders off the streets of her town.

“Will you go on record to say you will support harsher punishment?” Carboni-Branchaud asked Donovan, if such a law were proposed for those with multiple convictions.

“No, I won’t without more facts,” he replied. “Anybody who would agree to that is misleading you. Details matter.”

However, he added: “I get the anger, and I understand frustration.”

She wasn’t alone in venting that frustration Sunday afternoon at a forum attended by Donovan and Rutland County State’s Attorney Rose Kennedy. The event drew about 200 people to the Tinmouth Community Center, filling almost all the metal seats set up on the gym floor.

Tinmouth, a tight-knit Rutland County town of 613, has rallied around Carboni-Branchaud after the death a year ago of her husband, Leo Branchaud, 57.

Branchaud, a farmer, was struck and killed by a vehicle as he walked in front of his home on Gulf Road.

The person accused of hitting him has a criminal record that includes convictions for eight felonies and more than 30 misdemeanors.

“Second chances are OK, but we’re talking fifth, sixth, seventh chances,” resident Marshall Squier said. “The frustration is, at what point is the public safety at risk by giving these people another chance.”

He then added, “We’ve got a dead farmer in town. He was right in the middle of milking his cows. He was hit right in front of his farm. When you lose a neighbor and a friend, for this, they don’t need more chances.”

Community members volunteered to help keep Branchaud’s farm up and running after his death, signing up for shifts to make sure the cows continued to be milked to maintain their value before they were eventually sold off.

A large contingent of community members also attends every court hearing in the case against Thomas H. Velde Jr., 41, who police say had a suspended driver’s license and was behind the wheel of the pickup truck that fatally struck Branchaud and then fled.

Donovan, whose office is not involved in the prosecution of the case, said he understood the concerns expressed by those at the forum. He said it’s important for people to become involved and engaged in the judicial process and to hold elected prosecutors accountable at the ballot box.

“The fact that there are so many people here today speaks volumes,” he said, later adding, “It is an imperfect system. We can improve it. We can improve our response and improve the outcomes to the community.”

Rose Kennedy is Rutland County state’s attorney. Rutland Herald file photo

He talked of the impact of dealing with limited resources in the criminal justice system, from prosecutors carrying high caseloads to long waiting lists for defendants who are in need of drug treatment.

Donovan spoke of the need for law enforcement and prosecutors to identify earlier those who are most at risk of reoffending.

“What we need to adopt in this state, and we’re getting there, and really use evidence-based screening tools that tell us definitively what somebody’s risk is,” he said. “The charge could be misleading. The person could be a real sociopath coming in on a misdemeanor charge.”

People who are a low risk to reoffend, the attorney general said, can be supervised in the community. “If somebody is high-risk, that’s why we have jail cells,” he added. “We need that information so that we’re not just throwing darts blindfolded.”

Jodi Carboni, Leo Branchaud’s sister-in-law, told the two prosecutors that the system needs to hold those who use illegal drugs, and commit crimes while abusing substances, more accountable.

“I think the state is treating the drug addict more as a victim rather than a criminal,” she said. “The first time that you put a needle in your arm, you make a conscious decision — you know what the repercussion of that is going to be.”

Kennedy, whose office is prosecuting Velde, told the crowd she could not talk of the specifics of the case, other than to say she has brought a habitual offender charge against him, which carries a possible life sentence.

“This is a case I care very deeply about,” Kennedy said. “It’s a case that I’m going to prosecute in court, and I owe it to Tami and the rest of this community to not jeopardize that prosecution.”

She, like Donovan, acknowledged the frustration people expressed at the forum. Kennedy told the crowd she became the county’s top prosecutor only in 2015 and has been frustrated herself at times with the process.

Kennedy said crimes fueled by substance abuse are filling the docket. “We are at a crazy point, and it doesn’t seem to be getting better,” she added.

Regarding possible legislation calling for harsher penalties, Kennedy pointed to drunken driving, which for a first offense carries a possible maximum penalty of two years behind bars.

Even if prosecutors asked for jail time for such an offense, she said, they would rarely ever get it.

“The judge could sentence up to two years. … We don’t see jail on DUI-1s, we don’t see jail on DUI-2s,” Kennedy said. “It’s not a question of changing the statutory sentence, it’s a question of re-evaluating when we use jail and what are we willing to pay for it.”

In addition to the habitual offender charge, Velde pleaded not guilty in April 2016 to four other charges — two felonies, including leaving the scene of a fatal crash, and two misdemeanors.

His mother, Lisa Velde, whom police initially said was the driver in the crash, was also charged, pleading guilty to a felony offense of impeding law enforcement. She is awaiting a sentencing hearing in June.

Several state lawmakers were at the forum Sunday, including Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman, P-Middletown Springs, whose legislative district includes Tinmouth. He helped organize the forum, he said, so community members could air their concerns.

“There’s a lot of frustration, a lot of anger,” Chesnut-Tangerman said. “This was an opportunity for people to be heard. … I think it succeeded in that it is a start of a conversation.”

Collamore

Sen. Brian Collamore, R-Rutland. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

Sen. Brian Collamore, R-Rutland, said the forum was unique, with prosecutors hearing the concerns, and at times anger, from such a large group of community members.

“I do appreciate the community coming out, and I think that will help greatly in terms of the way this particular case is viewed going forward,” he said. “I think it gives Rose (Kennedy) some ammunition, if you will, and certainly the judicial folks that will take a look at this case down the road should be well aware of the sentiment in this community.”

Donovan said after the forum that the criminal justice system has to be more accountable to the citizens. “The frustration in this room was clearly communicated,” he added.

Carboni-Branchaud said she hoped the views expressed at the forum showed how fed up and upset people are with the system.

She then added, “Maybe if there are more of these meetings, and people keep going, voicing their opinions, changes will be made.”

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Alan J. Keays

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