Vt. Senate bill would eliminate ‘life without parole’ prison sentence

Published: Feb. 6, 2023 at 5:43 PM EST
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Should those people charged with some of the most heinous crimes have a chance for parole? That’s the question behind a proposed bill at the Statehouse.

Former Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell remembers well the night of May 23, 1992. “Then-Burligton Police Chief Kevin Scully had to tell the victim’s mother and stepfather there had been this tragic death. I still remember it like it was yesterday,” he said.

Melissa Wells, a 16-year-old high school student was killed in a shooting in a Burlington apartment Police arrested and charged 20-year-old Jerome Washington, who they say was trying to kill off her boyfriend, who, Washington thought was a police informant.

Sorrell was the Chittenden County state’s attorney at the time and recommended Washington be sentenced to life in prison without parole. “This was not a crime of passion or not one of these bar fights that alcohol fuels and spur of the moment,” he said.

Three decades later, under a proposal in Montpelier, Washington could have a chance to appear before a parole board. Senate Bill 41 would eliminate the sentence of life without parole. It also prohibits consecutive sentencing for people who were 25 years of age or younger at the time they committed the offense.

“A life sentence without the possibility of parole is in some ways an inhumane sentence and an expensive one,” said Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden County, the bill’s sponsor. The measure still leaves a minimum number of years people convicted of aggravated murder would have to serve before being eligible for parole.

There are over 150 people serving life sentences in Vermont but just 15 people are currently serving life without the possibility of parole. Victims’ advocates say the balance of accountability and rehabilitation is delicate as every victim’s circumstance is unique. “We don’t want to revictimize survivors, we don’t want folks to go through the process again. We want them to know with surety about what’s going to happen,” said Karen Tronsgard-Scott with the Vermont Network Against Domestic & Sexual Violence.

Ram Hinsdale acknowledges the conversations could be challenging for victims and their families but she says it can also open up conversations of healing. “These can also be moments for someone to express remorse about who they were in the past and who they have become,” she said.

The new push for eliminating life without parole is just one piece of a bigger conversation about accountability and reparations in the state’s criminal justice system.

Over three decades since Wells’ murder, Sorrell stands by his decision to pursue the charges.

The bill is in the Senate Judiciary Committee and has yet to receive a hearing. But with national advocacy groups also pushing for its passage, Ram Hinsdale hopes the proposal can make it across the finish line this year.

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