The Vermont Supreme Court has rejected an appeal from a Burlington man who was the first person in state history to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a crime other than murder.
In a 5-0 decision, justices unanimously upheld the sentence of Norman Stevens, 70, who in 1999 attacked his ex-girlfriend with a hammer and planned to lock her in a van he intended to set ablaze. Stevens, convicted of attempted murder, argued that his sentence — the toughest possible penalty under state law — was disproportionate to his crime, in violation of the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Chittenden Superior Court Judge Michael Kupersmith said during a 2001 sentencing hearing that Stevens was "in many ways worse" than the 9/11 terrorists. And in Stevens' appeal, described in a Seven Days story in November, his lawyers noted at least a dozen Vermonters who had been convicted of murder but received lesser sentences.
In a six-page opinion, the high court said that the "heinous" nature of Stevens' actions — he was kept from tying his victim inside the van only by the intercession of neighbors and he had previously fired a firearm in the direction of his children — meant that Kupersmith's sentence met the legal standard of "just proportion."
"Given these heinous circumstances, the trial court's sentence of life without parole — the highest possible sentence under Vermont law — was undoubtedly harsh, but not 'clearly out of all just proportion to the offense,'" Chief Justice Paul Reiber wrote.
Vermont law, Reiber noted, allows for "attempted" crimes to carry the same punishment as crimes successfully carried out.
"[Stevens] freely admitted that he intended to kill the victim, and that he was only thwarted because several neighbors intervened," Reiber said. "His culpability is not diminished by the fact that he failed to consummate the intended killing."
Stevens is being held in a Kentucky prison where Vermont sends long-term inmates.