The Vermont judge that is expected to sentence a well-known South Burlington coin and jewelry businessman in a sex case said his defense lawyer appears to be trying to hide too much information from the public before the sentencing.
Stephen J. Edwards, 72, of Nicklaus Circle is facing a felony charge of committing lewd conduct on his 93 year-old mother-in-law in July 2018. The victim, Marjorie Schumann Haggarty could not communicate and was confined to her deathbed at the Burlington Health and Rehab on Pearl Street, police and family said.
Edwards, the longtime owner of Vermont Coins and Jewelry in the Blue Mall on Dorset Street, has pleaded not guilty to the criminal charge. If convicted as charged, Edwards would need to register as a sex offender, officials said.
Vermont Superior Court Judge Sam Hoar acknowledged in court last week that the prosecution and the defense have apparently struck a proposed deal for a reduced charge but have not submitted it in writing to the court.
That plea deal, however, might be in jeopardy because defense lawyer Chandler Matson of Stowe does not want the public to see some documents that he hopes to use to get a lighter sentence for his client.
Hoar questioned whether Matson’s proposed document redactions that he filed with the court may violate both the First Amendment and the Vermont rules for Public Access to Court Records. Among the documents are evaluations of Edwards by a psychologist and a psychiatrist.
Matson provided both unredacted versions that the judge could use in the sentencing and heavily redacted versions that would go into the public file for citizens trying to learn details about the case.
“I was aggressive with my redactions,” Matson told the court.
Hoar said his own quick glance at the bench appeared to support Matson’s statement about being heavy handed with the proposed redactions. The judge said he was concerned about the balance under the law.
The judge said he would hold on continuing the hearing for a few weeks, but in the meantime he would take a shot at trying to determine what the public should have access to or not. Hoar told Matson that once the court completed its proposed redactions, the defense would have a chance to agree or try to offer an alternative.
Deputy State’s Attorney Dana M. DiSano said she strongly objected to the defense filing. She said the public should have a full understanding of what the judge considers when imposing the sentence. She said the law provides for a “presumption of openness” in these kinds of cases.
She noted the two defense reports from a psychiatrist and a psychologist were never ordered by the court. Instead the defense ordered them up from their paid experts.
Matson did acknowledge some relevant portions of the records should not be sealed. But he also questioned why the full report should be open.
Judge Hoar warned Matson that while the trial court could order some sections of the reports withheld at the sentencing, there is always the possibility somebody could later appeal the case to the Vermont Supreme Court. The high court could order the entire file, including the redacted portions, opened for public inspection after the sentencing, Hoar said.
Matson said that was a risk he has to measure.
The Other Paper put the court on notice at an earlier hearing that it may wish to be heard on the issue of transparency, especially in such a serious and high-profile case.
The meaty and ethical arguments in court were taken in by more than two dozen students from an American Law class at Mount Mansfield Union High School taught by social studies teacher Andrew McClellan.
After the hearing, Hoar took a few minutes to try to ensure the MMU students fully understood the legal issues at the hearing.
Three members of the victim’s family also listened to the court hearing by speaker phone. Two of them from South Carolina, had attended the last court hearing Jan. 3 when Edwards was expected to be sentenced. It was at that hearing that Matson brought up the idea of hiding portions of some court records. Hoar said he would give him time to file a motion to seal the documents and offered the family an apology for the delay.
The Haggarty family has said they are not happy with the proposed plea deal. They said they have asked the office of State’s Attorney Sarah George to take the case to trial. The crime is too serious to plead it down with all the evidence, and potentially allow Edwards to avoid prison in a plea deal, they said.
Another sibling, Martha Edwards, who is married to the defendant, has been at court hearings supporting her husband.
Burlington Police have said Stephen Edwards was interrupted by a nurse during the incident and that DNA evidence supports her testimony. The victim died a few days later. Police say they also have a recorded phone call with Edwards admitting his conduct.
Edwards had pleaded guilty to the initial charge on Feb. 28, 2019. Judge Martin Maley ordered a psychosexual evaluation on Edwards as part of a pre-sentence investigation.
The prosecution agreed to seek no more than a 2-to-5 year prison term for Edwards, but he later fired his lawyer and hired Matson. Edwards later withdrew his guilty plea and the case started over.
Edwards operated his coin and metal business next to Shelburne Bay Plaza on U.S. 7 before moving it to South Burlington several years ago. The defendant, also known as John Edwards, lived for many years on Mount Philo Road in Charlotte before moving to South Burlington.