Back in October I got a call from the Windham County State's Attorney's Office with the outcome of a year-long battle with a stalker. I put down the phone, sickened, shocked.
A local workman's escalating obsession had forced me from my camp in Newfane to motels, bed and breakfasts and sublets since November 2012. In Colorado, Connecticut, Washington, D.C., Delaware and elsewhere, police could have intervened early on. In Vermont I got police action on two incidents of trespass in early May 2013 -- and was advised to move out at once. Again.
Trespass is "not a serious crime." Citation, arraignment, pretrial conference would take months; if he went to trial, it would take place next year. My stalker had a history of domestic and other violence, was prone to drunken outbursts of rage; if I filed charges, I was the one who must leave.
I'm a writer with two "cult classics" under my belt; I'd come to Vermont desperate to finish a book. But I'd bought the family cottage for the freedom from intrusion which was my right under the law of Vermont; I had to defend it.
I moved to a motel, art colony, four-month sublet. And blundered into the House of Mystery: the criminal justice system of Vermont.
My stalker was arraigned in July, with conditions of release including no contact, proximity, entry to property. I was told it was "probably safe" to return; if I had problems, I could call the police. I rode my bike to Newfane and crept into my place through the woods, avoiding the road by his house. If I stayed overnight, I slept with garden tools and a flashlight by the bed.
In mid-August the prosecutor and local victim advocate explained the game. Even technical violations could give leverage to the prosecution, should be reported. Reprisals were not a concern.
Two weeks later he broke into the house at night threatening to shoot me. I spent five hours talking, calming him down, then escaped down the road in stocking feet with flashlight, no keys, no money. A neighbor took me in at 5 a.m. The State Police caught him a few days later.
Vermont law requires the prosecutor to make reasonable attempts to consult the victim on plea bargains. My victim advocate called with a fait accompli. My deposition had weakened the case, showing "absence of fear." The prosecutor had dropped a slew of charges and slashed the sentence to: 14 months for obstruction of justice, nine concurrent for reckless endangerment.
But my impact statement described repeated flights, life under siege; had they not read it? No. Key documents had somehow been lost. Didn't it matter that I'd been driven from my home for a year? No.
On February 24, the Vermont Automated Notification Service notified me that my stalker had been transferred to a work camp. On May 2, I was told he was up for parole in June. (One month of guaranteed safety, urgent need for restrictions.) On May 15, I was told he would be released unconditionally at the end of the month. Two weeks to get notices against trespass in place (my neighbors stood by me), look into a stalking order.
On May 20, I went into the Windham County Sheriff's Department to hand in the paperwork and was told my stalker would be released the next day. There was no time to serve papers. The sentence had been cut by five months without warning.
His caseworker at the work camp explained. Seventy inmates are sex offenders, 30 get a special deal: each day served earns an extra day off the sentence. He had also served "good time" in Springfield. The system is not set up to give this information to victims.
The Director of Victim Services at the the Department of Corrections explained if they had known the background he would probably have served the full sentence. (If the charge of stalking had not been dropped; if I had contacted the DOC early on, etc.) They will make efforts to ensure victims are better informed.
The Women's Freedom Center advised me to leave for my mother's house in D.C. ("We don't know what's going on in his head.")
The muddle and systematic misinformation have given rise to a spirit of defiant vigilantism in Newfane. One neighbor told me if she saw my tormentor on the road at night she would run him down. Others advise me to get a gun and shoot on sight.
Now look. I've seen the gallant efforts by Brattleboro to establish itself as a cultural center. I've lived in London, New York, Paris, Rome, Berlin: why choose Bratt? Newfane?
This is a state whose glory is the sheer cussedness of Vermonters, with people who would rather live on a private dirt road, which they plough themselves because they can keep people out and people who litter the landscape with no trespass signs. They're not damsels in distress, they're Vermonters. You can write a work of genius in Vermont because you don't have to apologize for wanting to be alone. But not if you have a legal system so arcane even the natives don't understand it.
The State's Attorney notionally represents the state of Vermont, not the victim. Can it really be that the interests of the state are promoted by driving talent out of state? By leaving residents at the mercy of random psychopaths? By fostering vigilantism in communities which see no other choice?
I'd like to think not.
Helen DeWitt is the author of "The Last Samurai" and "Lightning Rods."