Wednesday August 21, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- Having admitted to two muggings and numerous violations of his conditions of release, James Lafayette nonetheless wanted to stay out of prison.

But Judge John Wesley disagreed, saying the muggings -- one of which included Lafayette dragging a woman 30 feet down an icy alley in Bellows Falls -- warranted time behind bars.

Wesley on Tuesday sentenced Lafayette, who is 21 and also uses the surname Prue, to serve two to eight years in connection with the January 2012 incidents.

"I can't, in good conscience, give you a probationary sentence," Wesley said in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division. "This record tells a pretty stark story of a young man who hasn't been able to function yet in the community."

In reference to Lafayette's conduct since his initial arrest, Wesley added that "this is about as many violations of conditions of release as we've ever seen."

Police said Lafayette participated in a mugging on Jan. 23, 2012, in Bellows Falls. The victim told investigators that she had left Merchants Bank and was walking home when she noticed two men following her on foot.

Near Rockingham Free Public Library, the victim slipped on ice and lost her balance. As she tried to walk away, the men approached her, grabbed her coat and took her wallet before fleeing, according to court documents.

Police said Lafayette had taken the wallet but told accomplice Mitchell Beauchamp -- who later pleaded guilty to his role in the incidents -- that "the theft was a bust and he had tossed the wallet."

The following day, another woman reported that she had been dragged into an alley between Merchants Bank and Peoples Bank in the Square.

In court on Tuesday, the victim recounted the details of an incident that happened around 2 p.m. on a weekday afternoon.

"I became aware that someone was rushing right behind me and then grabbed my purse strap ... and immediately spun me around and into an alley, which was covered with ice and melt water, therefore very slippery. So I promptly went over on my back and cracked my head on the ice," she said.

"Mr. Prue dragged me about 30 feet down that alley," the victim added. "Then he stopped, and he and I looked at each other, and I shall not forget his face."

She said physical problems -- including knee issues and a dislocated collar bone -- resulted from the incident. The victim also said there has been an emotional impact.

"I still think about that alley, and I walk elsewhere," she said.

Nonetheless, the victim also said she hoped Lafayette could rehabilitate himself.

"I might be a foolish optimist, but I would like to see him have a chance to make some better decisions," she said. "I'm sure he has a perfectly good mind. And I'm sure he could, if he applied himself, remember that as a little boy he probably had some ideas about who he'd like to be and what he'd like to do when he grew up."

Windham County State's Attorney Tracy Shriver also read a statement from the victim in the first mugging, a woman who said she has "experienced heightened feelings of anxiety, depression and paranoia."

"I have suffered from varying post-traumatic symptoms such as insomnia, loss of appetite and feelings of panic when I'm faced with conditions such as icy weather or when I see groups of men in hoodies," she wrote. "These triggers remind me of my assailants and the events of Jan. 23, 2012."

Lafayette, who has been listed as living in Walpole, N.H., and in Bellows Falls, in May pleaded guilty to two counts of larceny from a person and one count of simple assault in connection to the muggings.

He also pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in connection with an Oct. 23, 2012 fight in Rockingham.

And Lafayette entered pleas to frequently violating his court-ordered conditions of release since his arrest. There were so many such cases that Shriver and defense attorney Chris Montgomery had to take brief recess early in Tuesday's sentencing hearing in order to sort them out.

Shriver noted those violations as well as the impact of the muggings -- which she said are a "very rare occurrence in Vermont" -- in asking Wesley to impose a jail term of three to 15 years.

"The state feels that, in this instance ... punishment is first and foremost," Shriver said. "And the rehabilitative aspects come second to that."

Montgomery said Lafayette's personal struggles have included an abusive stepfather, attention-deficit disorder, depression and substance abuse that began at age 10 or earlier.

"He has seen more than a child should see," Montgomery said.

The defense attorney made clear that his client wanted a suspended prison sentence of six to 10 years, with probation substituting for time inside.

But Montgomery also said he believed that, given his client's immaturity, a strictly probationary sentence "may be more harmful for him than good." So he issued an alternate recommendation of 17 months to eight years in prison.

Lafayette apologized for his conduct during a brief statement in court.

"I take full responsibility for it. I wish I could take it back, but I can't," he said. "All I'm trying to do now is to straighten my life out."

Wesley said the circumstances of Lafayette's past don't begin to explain his conduct.

"We can only shake our heads and ask, ‘Where did this go wrong?' Wesley said. "And I don't pretend, Mr. Prue, to be able to answer that question."

The judge also said drug addiction may have led Lafayette to treat others as "less than human."

"Maybe it's simpler, actually, Mr. Prue," Wesley said. "Maybe it just comes down to heroin."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.