A South Burlington coin and jewelry dealer will not go to prison for committing a lewd act on his 93-year-old, comatose mother-in-law in the final hours before she died two years ago.
Stephen J. Edwards, 72, of Nicklaus Circle, received a suspended 6-12 month prison term during his sentencing in Vermont Superior Court on Friday afternoon, July 31.
Judge Martin Maley, who several times called the case “inexplicable,” placed Edwards under state probation conditions for two years. If Edwards violates those terms, he could be sent to prison, Maley said.
The sentence was a sharp downward departure of what some members of the victim’s family thought should and would happen to Edwards, the longtime owner of Vermont Coins and Jewelry in the Blue Mall on Dorset Street.
The case also has been a “hot potato,” overseen by five judges in two years. Maley pointed out that jury trials have come to a halt during the COVID-19 pandemic – but could be starting again.
Edwards had initially denied a felony charge of lewd and lascivious conduct on a vulnerable adult in July 2018.
The alleged victim, Marjorie Schumann Haggarty, was on her deathbed at the Burlington Health and Rehab on Pearl Street and was unable to communicate to alert anybody about being molested, police and family have said.
She died about 36 hours after the incident.
Edwards pleaded guilty in February 2019 to a felony sex charge. He faced a potential 2-5 year prison term and a spot on the Vermont Sex Offender Registry.
Maley ordered a psychosexual evaluation on Edwards as part of a pre-sentence investigation report.
But Edwards later fired his defense lawyer and retained Stowe lawyer Chandler Matson. Edwards maintained there was nothing sexual about the act he committed. The defense team hired a psychiatrist and a psychologist who said, after interviewing Edwards, they thought the act was never sexual in nature.
Matson never filed the two full assessments with the court after Judge Sam Hoar said they would be considered public documents.
Matson for his sentencing memo used small segments from both evaluations: a psychiatric report by Dr. Albert Drukteinis of Manchester, N.H., and an assessment by Thomas A. Powell, a Shelburne psychologist.
Deputy State’s Attorney Dana M. DiSano said the prosecution might have difficulty providing evidence for the felony charge that Edwards had become aroused or received gratification from his actions with the dying woman.
As Maley reviewed each element of the crime, he asked Edwards if he acknowledged it. In the end, Maley asked for a plea, and Edwards said “guilty.”
Maley noted it was not an accident, but intentional.
“It’s a word I am having trouble with,” Edwards said. “I’ll say yes.”
The high-profile case and sentence has split the victim’s family.
Three members of the family thought the office of Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George had turned soft on Edwards. They asked Judge Maley during the sentencing to reject the plea deal.
The victim’s son, David Haggarty, stated the evidence of guilt was great.
He reminded the court a nurse walked in on Edwards while committing the lewd act. Haggarty also said there was DNA evidence left behind by Edwards confirming the improper contact with the dying woman. Edwards confessed to the act while on a recorded phone conversation after the incident, Haggarty said.
“She would not accept it as a loving act,” Haggarty said about the lewd conduct. He said his mother was robbed of her dignity by Edwards – a comment his wife, Gail, also echoed.
“We shall not forget. He assaulted our mother,” Haggarty said.
“She’s the victim, not Mr. Edwards,” he told the court.
“He’s not a nice guy,” Haggarty said.
Haggerty said the defense failed to meet deadlines in the case and were “late to the show.”
One of the victim’s daughters, Sharon Palady, said she never understood how Edwards could have assaulted her “defenseless mom” on her deathbed.
Palady said she has been in the room at Burlington Health and Rehab both before and after the incident and could tell something was amiss. She eventually saw a Burlington police officer and the head of the Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations, which handles sex cases, and soon learned her mother was an alleged victim of her son-in-law.
A third sibling, Martha, who is married to Edwards, has stood by her husband during the two years the case has progressed through court.
Martha Edwards told the court that she was “speaking as a victim” and claimed her siblings lacked a relationship with their mother, who had lived with the Edwards family for a couple of years before being placed in the Burlington facility.
The Edwards’ two daughters, Stacy Riley, of Hinesburg, and Rebecca Wilson, of Williston, were among the other five people speaking Friday on behalf of their father. Riley said she was biased as a daughter, but noted her dad was a charitable person.
“My father is a victim too,” Riley said, and she was proud that her mother stuck with her father.
Wilson said her father was the picture of success and also always appreciated the underdog. Wilson said he was a good man.
The defense submitted letters of support from some community members, grandchildren and others written in 2019.
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. Edwards lived for many years on Mount Philo Road in Charlotte before moving to South Burlington.
No Pre-Sentence Investigation report was requested for the misdemeanor charge, Judge Maley noted.
Edwards could have received up to one year in prison and fined $300 for the reduced charge. Maley did not impose a fine.
Maley told Edwards his name will be on the state’s Adult Abuse Registry.
Unlike the Vermont Sex Offender Registry, which taxpayers have free access at any time, the Adult Abuse Registry is fully confidential. The general public is prohibited from checking for names on the state’s abuse registry.
Maley ordered Edwards to remain away from vulnerable adults. He is prohibited from loitering where vulnerable adults may congregate. DiSano said the state wanted that requirement to be broad so he stays out of nursing homes and other facilities.
The judge ordered Edwards to seek both mental health and sex-related counseling and to complete 100 hours of community service.
The prosecution and family members said Edwards is on probation and had been given a break last year.
Edwards was convicted for repeatedly accepting stolen property at his South Burlington store and failing to properly record the precious metals and other treasures so police could trace them, if stolen, records show. This was part of a larger investigation into those selling coins, jewelry and other stolen items.
Judge Kevin Griffin imposed a suspended 3-6 month prison sentence in February 2019 and placed Edwards on probation for two years. Edwards made $235,213 in undocumented transactions in August and September 2017, state police said. They said Edwards ignored the six requirements when buying valuables so police can try to locate stolen property and return it to the rightful owners.
One of the frequent burglars said after multiple trips into the shop to sell stolen goods, he said he received a warning from Edwards that police were on to the thief and he may want to avoid the store, court records show.