CANTON — The pounding on the kitchen door of Lori E. Lichterman’s apartment was thunderous. It was nearly 1 a.m., and Mrs. Lichterman had been in bed watching television. Her husband probably had just forgotten his key, she thought, but as she parted the curtains to the door and looked into the night, she grew terrified when a wild-eyed stranger stared back.
That was the start of a criminal matter that ended with Mrs. Lichterman having a say in her offender’s sentencing, and the prosecutor in the case praising the judge and the victim for its outcome.
While members of the legal community agree that empowering victims isn’t something the courts have been known for, current and former district attorneys in St. Lawrence, Jefferson and Lewis counties say they’ll continue to encourage victims to state in open court how they’ve been affected by a crime.
Allowing victims to have their say is part of a process called “restorative justice,” which Oxford Dictionary defines as “a system of criminal justice that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.”
“From time to time an opportunity presents itself for us to think outside the box and be creative in deciding how best to resolve a case,” Nicole M. Duve, former St. Lawrence County district attorney, said in recalling cases her office prosecuted. “On a number of occasions, we had an opportunity for victims to meet with the defendants who committed crimes against them and for those victims to find healing and peace of mind through that interaction.”
Too often, though, that doesn’t happen.
Albany Law School professor Laurie Shanks, who has practiced law for more than 25 years, said courts have focused less on restorative justice and more on punishment in the past few decades.
“The reality is that we have a generation of young people who are in prison,” Ms. Shanks said. “It’s destroyed our cities. It is unsustainable, both financially and socially.”
However, Ms. Shanks and Edward F. Narrow, who has served as a defense attorney in St. Lawrence, Jefferson, Franklin and Clinton counties, agree that judges often have their hands bound by legislation keeping them from using their discretion in sentencing.
“If there is a mandatory punishment that must be imposed, then that takes all of the sentencing ability away from the judge to use his discretion, to use the input of the DA’s office, the victim, the defendant,” Mr. Narrow said. “I think the mandatory sentencing guidelines really take away from a judge’s ability to use restorative justice.”
Canton-based criminal defense attorney Brian D. Pilatzke said the court system is geared toward dealing with offenders, not satisfying victims. And although some victims might appear at every court proceeding, Mr. Pilatzke said they don’t get to speak until the sentencing phase, when they are given the opportunity to read a victim impact statement.
“There is very little that can be done to a person who has been victimized to make them whole, to make them feel unvictimized,” Mr. Pilatzke said. “I don’t know if there is any system that can do that.
“The saying is, ‘a good plea bargain is one that no one is happy with. The victims aren’t happy with it because they wanted more time or more money back, the DA isn’t happy with it because they wanted more punishment, the defense isn’t happy because they wanted a not-guilty verdict, so nobody is happy with it, but everyone can live with it.”
Mrs. Lichterman said considering a victim’s position during the sentencing phase can help the healing process.
“I think if you listen to the victim’s version of what justice would be for them, it removes some of the feeling of being victimized,” Mrs. Lichterman said.
It was two years ago, on Feb. 17, 2012, that Marco P. Avedian, then a 25-year-old SUNY Canton student, pounded so hard on Mrs. Lichterman’s door that he crashed through it and wandered from room to room until he passed out on the kitchen floor, drunk.
While Mr. Avedian was arrested without incident that night by village police and was charged with burglary and trespassing, Mrs. Lichterman had barricaded herself in her bedroom in the fear that Mr. Avedian would hurt her. She said she had nightmares of the incident throughout the court proceedings.
That all changed on the day of Mr. Avedian’s sentencing.
On Oct. 21, Mrs. Lichterman arrived in court hoping to be heard, hoping to see some kind of restorative justice, and St. Lawrence County Court Judge Jerome J. Richards gave credence to her wishes, something she said she never expected.
Prior to his sentencing, Mr. Avedian turned to Mrs. Lichterman and expressed remorse for his actions.
“I’m ashamed and embarrassed at how alcohol played a role in my life,” Mr. Avedian said. “It was a stupid decision to get blackout drunk. Mrs. Lichterman, please forgive me when I say how sorry I am.”
Mr. Avedian, who had the burglary charge, a felony, dropped on Aug. 20 due to lack of evidence, was facing 45 days in St. Lawrence County jail and three years’ probation for the charge of second-degree criminal trespass. But Mrs. Lichterman told the judge in open court that the only punishment she wanted was for Mr. Avedian to give presentations to students at SUNY Canton and Hugh C. Williams High School in Canton about the downfalls of drug and alcohol abuse and its impact on the community. She also asked that he write her letters saying how he is improving as a human being since committing the crime.
And that’s the sentence Judge Richards issued.
“It has given me hope that he did do so many of the things that I wanted him to do on some level, because I don’t think I ever had faith in the justice system,” Mrs. Lichterman said in a January interview with the Times. “It made it seem like the court cared about me, and that is not necessarily a reputation the court systems in this country have ever had.”
St. Lawrence County Assistant District Attorney Joshua A. HaberkornHalm, who handled the Avedian case, lauded Mrs. Lichterman and the judge for the sentence.
“I think there is something to be said about her having someone force his way into her home and then have her make the decision she did,” Mr. HaberkornHalm said. “I think that is brave and compassionate. That would be a textbook case of the justice system working as it should.”
A New York county judge who requested anonymity because of Unified Court System policies restricting judges from making “any public comment about a pending or impending proceeding in any court within the United States or its territories,” said not only have victims always had the opportunity to tell the court how a defendant’s actions have affected them, but state law allows for victims to read an impact statement that often will include what they need to become whole again.
According to the 1982 final report of the President’s Task Force on Victims of Crime, all judges are recommended to allow for victim impact statements “and give appropriate weight to input at sentencing from victims of violent crime.”
“Often times, victims have asked for the defendants to participate in some kind of community service,” the judge said. “For the most part, victims don’t ask for the defendant to be locked up and to have the key thrown away because it doesn’t make any sense.”
The judge said victims often can have a sudden change in heart toward what they would like to see at sentencing. The judge added that, unless there is a plea deal agreed to by the prosecutor, defense and judge, the court can accommodate the victim if his or her request is reasonable.
“I find myself in situations where I thought I would be able to make a sentence; however, after hearing the victim, the prosecution and the defense, I’m left with a tough decision,” the judge said.
In Lewis County, District Attorney Leanne K. Moser said she and her office work with victims to the best of their ability, but at times prosecutors are bound by minimum and mandatory sentencing guidelines.
Jefferson County District Attorney Cindy F. Intschert said there are circumstances in which the court has to weigh not just the needs of the victim, but the wishes of the community.
“We represent the people of the state of New York, which means we represent the immediate victim as well as everyone else,” Mrs. Intschert said. “For instance, there may be an individual who has committed an act of domestic violence, and that particular victim is not seeking any sort of substantial sentence at this point. We may be aware that this is the third or fourth person that this person has victimized. So that is going to weigh against the way a victim may feel about it.”
Ms. Duve, the former St. Lawrence County district attorney, said when violence was committed against an individual during her tenure, her office tried to give that person as much of a voice as possible.
Such a meeting took place in a July plea deal with Sawyer M. Pignona and Connor I. Warden, two 17-year-old Potsdam High School students who, after a Facebook feud involving students from Colton-Pierrepont Central School, drove through that school’s parking lot, with Mr. Pignona brandishing a rifle at the school’s lacrosse team during a practice.
The plea bargain reached between prosecutors and defense attorneys, in conjunction with school district officials, included community service in the form of a 25- to 30-minute presentation to be given by Mr. Pignona and Mr. Warden at all consenting school districts in St. Lawrence County.
The presentations were to include a discussion of the events leading up to the incident, the consequences, the impact on the community, the role of social media, and lessons learned.
For every school district that chooses not to participate, 25 hours of community service will be imposed on the two teens, with priority given to the Colton-Pierrepont community for those hours.
Ms. Duve said the plea deal was an example of finding a sense of restorative justice for the community through the emphasis of ways in which the crime tore at the fabric of the area.
“It was a remarkable process,” Ms. Duve said. “I think the community and people there were glad to be a part of it.”
The sentencing structure allowed for the court to take into account the expressed remorse by the defendants, and allowed them the opportunity to be contributing members of society, Ms. Duve said.
“We all win when that happens,” she said. “Often, time passes between a charge and the sentence. It is an opportunity, if used wisely by the defendant, to foster the process of self-reflection and the process of restorative justice.”
St. Lawrence County District Attorney Mary E. Rain said her office will continue working with victims in that same vain.
“That has been impressed upon my assistants, that they need to contact the victim, let them know what is going on with the case, talk about what you are going to do with the case with them, and then get their thoughts on it,” Ms. Rain said. “We might not agree, but at least they would have a voice. Just to start pleading out a case without contacting them can be pretty disheartening.”
SATISFIED WITH THE SYSTEM
As Mr. HaberkornHalm left the courtroom after Mr. Avedian’s sentencing, he said Mrs. Lichterman’s ability to not just be heard in court, but to find a sense of closure with the judge’s decision, left him with a sense of satisfaction.
Every victim’s definition of justice is different, Mr. HaberkornHalm said.
“With Lori it was the specially crafted probation, where someone else would have wanted jail,” he said. “That Lori was satisfied with the justice system is a good day.”
In Mrs. Lichterman’s case, the judge was able to hear her requests and take action because the sentencing structure called for probation instead of mandatory jail time.
Former St. Lawrence County Director of Probation Edward C. Gauthier said victims often are more concerned about the defendants’ growth and treatment and less concerned about their punishment.
“It is an interesting thing to me when victims modify their justified indignation,” Mr. Gauthier said. “There are occasions where many times victims identify a desire that … this person gets treatment and cleans up, which I think is pretty magnanimous.”
The search for justice, regardless of how it is conveyed, really comes down to one person – the judge – Ms. Rain and Mrs. Intschert said.
“A victim’s request can range from anything, like if there is drug or alcohol abuse involved that the person receive some assistance, counseling, rehabilitation, up to and including state prison,” Mrs. Intschert said. “The input from the victim can cover a very wide range of particular remedies and requests. But the final decision is finally and ultimately up to the court.”