It's the hot Vermont story of the day, and Monday night it went national on Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor."
Teasing viewers at the top of the program, Bill O'Reilly flashed a picture of veteran Vermont District Court Judge Edward Cashman. The bombastic right-wing cheerleader told viewers, "You may be looking at the worst judge in the USA. He gave a child rapist 60 days in prison. We'll confront him!"
Appearing live on "The O'Reilly Factor" via satellite was freshman Republican State Senator Wendy Wilton of Rutland.
"The reaction from Vermonters is outrage," said Wilton. "People are just horrified about this. People think that Judge Cashman has basically flipped his lid."
Asked by O'Reilly if "impeachment" was deserved, the longtime choir girl at Rutland's Immaculate Heart of Mary Church replied, "This guy has to go!"
Indeed, press reports about last Wednesday's sentencing of Mark Hulett, 34, of Williston, has sent shock waves through the community. A Fox News crew interviewing passersby on the Church Street Marketplace Monday had no trouble getting public reaction.
"I'm not gonna want to walk down this street with my child," said one unidentified expectant mother, "knowing that a rapist is out. I mean, I don't want that around my kid."
Nothing like a sex crime, especially one involving a child, to get such a visceral, emotional reaction across the board. Were it constitutional, a popular vote supporting castration or boiling in oil would pass easily this week. In fact, hanging Judge Cashman appears to be on almost everyone's to-do list.
But the problem with public executions fueled by the mob is that too often the wrong person gets executed. That's because the facts are not allowed to get in the way, and that's exactly what's happened here.
"I understand the public's concern," said Hulett's attorney Mark Kaplan. The veteran lawyer and former president of Burlington's board of alderman way back when told "Inside Track" he was "not surprised by the reaction. It's really not an informed reaction. In part, that's the fault of the press."
"I just don't think that the media has accurately portrayed what Judge Cashman did in the sentencing and what his concerns were," said Kaplan. "They sort of cherrypicked a few of his quotes and took them out of context."
Now take a deep breath, folks, because Kaplan's got it right. In fact, none of the Republican lawmakers who joined Sen. Wilton's Statehouse press conference Friday appeared to know anything about the facts in the case or Cashman's record, despite his 25 years as a Vermont black robe.
For example, the GOP legislative critics had no idea that Cashman is, like them, also a Republican! He was appointed to the bench by Republican Gov. Richard Snelling. Prior to that, "Cash" was a law-and-order prosecutor in Grande Isle County, an assistant attorney general and a Public Service Board commissioner.
Fox News may be portraying Judge Cashman as some kind of super-liberal "Vermont tree-hugger," but the fact is, he's got a well-earned reputation for tough sentencing. Just last month the Vermont Supreme Court overturned a life sentence he gave to a convicted murderer.
What Cashman's sentence actually did was ensure that Hulett will never again be able to live in the community unless he participates in sex-offender treatment. To get him into treatment, Cashman had no choice, under corrections department rules, but to give him 60 days to serve on the low end. Since the department has classified him as low-risk, Hulett is only eligible for counseling on the outside.
In fact, what Wendy Wilton and the bloodthirsty mob don't realize is that almost all Vermont criminals get out of jail at some point. And unless Sen. Wilton and her supporters pass legislation appropriating hundreds of millions of dollars for new Vermont prisons, offenders will continue to be released.
In his order upholding Hulett's sentence, Cashman laid out in detail the actual facts in the case and the only options before him -- items overlooked so far in press accounts.
In cases such as Hulett's, wrote Cashman, the court is presented with a "sentencing dilemma." It's a choice "between two less-than-ideal options. One option enhances the long-term risk to public safety, due to the future release of a hardened, untreated sex offender. This person would endanger our children and grandchildren. In order to avoid that risk, the other option would be to impose a low-minimum on a lengthy incarcerate sentence."
The fact is, Cashman sentenced Hulett to up to 10 years on the first count, three years to life on the second count and two to five years on the third count. He will be on probation and under state supervision until the day he dies! If he screws up or refuses treatment, he'll be behind bars for a long, long time. Hulett's release conditions prohibit him from any alcohol or drug use, or even living in an apartment complex that has children. He cannot have friends who have kids, go to a bar or possess or view pornography, among other restrictions. One violation would put him back in the slammer.
Calling this "a 60-day sentence for raping a child," as O'Reilly and Wilton have done, is a gross distortion of what happened.
In his Tuesday decision upholding his sentence, Cashman also addressed the public furor he's ignited, mostly due to the passion of folks who don't want to know all the facts in the case. When asked how many convicted sex offenders were already living in communities across Vermont, Sen. Wilton replied "about 1100."
But according to Sheri Englert, coordinator of Vermont's sex-offender registry, there are at present 2352 registered sex offenders in the state. Oopsie!
Wilton and her supporters want a 25-year minimum prison sentence for sex offenders like Hulett. If adopted, such a law would drain the state's financial resources by requiring new prison construction for hundreds of new long-term inmates. The court system would need more prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys to represent defendants who could no longer plea bargain. Every case would go to trial. This week, state's attorneys across Vermont are quite concerned, since resources are already strapped.
The calls for Cashman's crucifixion will continue, fueled by Fox News and others who refuse to let the facts get in the way. So be it.
Judge Cashman has actually displayed the type of courage that has long been his trademark. He's always been willing to take the heat for doing what he thinks is right to protect the public. The message he's sending is that the corrections department, currently run by a Douglas appointee (a former Burlington banker with no experience in the field), needs to get its act together when it comes to providing treatment for sex offenders, because at some point in time, all of them will end up back in the community.
As Cashman noted, state law requires the department to "render treatment to offenders with the goal of achieving their successful return and participation as citizens of the state." All the judge did was follow the law.
As former Vermont Chief Justice Jeff Amestoy -- also a former Republican attorney general -- once wrote, "There must be judicial accountability. But it must begin with an accountability to conscience. Judicial independence is a value easy to honor in the abstract, but more difficult to applaud when one disagrees with a decision. But, of course, it is then that it most needs to be sustained."
Campaign Matters -- Vermont's senior senator, Patrick J. Leahy, is in the thick of it this week with the Alito hearings. We caught a glimpse of him Tuesday morning asking the Bush Supreme Court nominee what possible legal justification there could be for the White House spying on Vermont Quakers who oppose the president's disastrous war in Iraq.
St. Patrick suggested that if the White House wants to spy on Vermonters who criticize its Iraq policy, "all they have to do is turn on C-SPAN," said Leahy. "I do it all the time."
Meanwhile, the favorite to become St. Patrick's seat mate next year, Independent Rep. Bernie Sanders, was busy Saturday escorting Wisconsin's progressive U.S. Senator -- and likely presidential candidate -- Russ Feingold around Vermont. They appeared at several Democratic Party-organized fundraisers and a big public rally in Brattleboro, where Bernie's designated replacement, Peter Welch, got a good heckling from antinuke critics.
At a morning presser in Burlington, Sen. Feingold sang Bernie's praises.
"This is one of the few people in this country that I honestly believe can help change the face of America," said Feingold. "He's not only ready to be in the Senate, I think he's ready to be one of the instant leaders in the Senate."
And this week Ol' Bernardo got it all off his chest, telling the Associated Press he's firmly behind Peter Welcher's, sorry, Welch's, congressional candidacy and has privately urged Progressive State Rep. David Zuckerman to abandon thoughts of entering that race. Sanders, godfather of Vermont's Progressive Party but never an official member, says Dave the Prog would just be a "spoiler" and get Republican Martha Rainville elected in November.
On Sunday evening, the Burlington Progressive Party caucus unanimously chose State Rep. Bob Kiss as its horse in the mayor's race. Last Thursday, Democrats narrowly backed Hinda "Jogbra" Miller over Councilor Andy Montroll. Republicans are fielding Councilor Kevin Curley.
Monday afternoon, we bumped into Bernie on Burlington's Church Street. Mr. Sanders told "Inside Track" he will not be making an endorsement in his hometown's upcoming mayor's race.
"There are two good people in the race," said Sanders.
"Kevin Curley and who else?" we asked.
"Huh, huh, huh!" replied Bernie -- he even laughs with a Brooklyn accent! -- as he turned and headed back to his office.
Sometimes a good laugh says it all, eh?
The early betting line has Hinda on top, with Curley second and Kiss pulling up the rear. But hold all bets, folks, because this baby looks headed for extra innings, i.e., Instant Run-off Voting. The Kiss candidacy has squelched Lady Jogbra's plans for an easy win over Squirrelly Curley. Getting more than 50 percent on the "first choice" ballot count looks unreachable now.
Mayor Peter Clavelle, the Prog-turned-Democrat -- a political transformation that has hastened the end of his political career -- told us this week he is sticking with Hinda, despite the last-minute Kiss entry.
Tarrant Sighting -- Bernie's Republican U.S. Senate opponent, Rich Tarrant, was in the audience at Monday's Lake Champlain Chamber breakfast. Tarrant worked the room with a campaign aide glued to his elbow. The chap indicated he'd worked previous races in Virginia and Michigan. Nothing but the best for the IDX gazillionaire-turned-politician.
Richie, unfortunately, was in no mood for an interview. And no press conferences are scheduled, he said. We get the feeling this will be one carefully controlled campaign -- the "best" that money can buy.
And, oh, yes, Richie's website is finally up and running at http://www.tarrant06.com.
Media Notes -- According to reliable sources, the largest daily newspaper in Vermont, the Gannett chain's Burlington Free Press, is planning to shut down its capital bureau after the legislative session. Word is, the lease runs out at the end of May.
The Montpelier bureau is located on State Street across from the Capitol Plaza Hotel, a two-minute walk from the Statehouse.
Also this week, the Freeps began a new column on the local news page by Ed Shamy, filling the "void" left when Sam Hemingway's column ended a few months back.
Mr. Shamy has been at the paper for a few years as an inside editor. But he's a fresh face on the local news scene, and we wish him success in his endeavor.
Meanwhile, for the first time Vermonters got to watch the Guv's "State of the State" speech live on the Internet!
While WPTZ-TV and Vermont Public Television broadcast the speech on their airwaves, WCAX-TV broadcast Gov. Douglas' "affordability" pitch on its website: http://www.wcax.com.
Unfortunately, unlike other TV stations, WCAX's webcast did not carry Democratic House Speaker Gaye Symington's seven-minute rebuttal that followed.
We emailed WGOP, er, WCAX News Director Marselis Parsons seeking information on why the Symington speech didn't make their webcast, but Marsillyiss did not respond.
The Douglas Vision! -- Speaking of Ch. 3, Gov. Jim Douglas was the featured guest on Sunday morning's broadcast of "You Can Quote Me." Parsons was joined by Reporter Kristin Carlson, who clearly had eaten her Wheaties that morning. No softballs.
The most insightful moment occurred when Carlson asked Gov. Douglas, "When you look ahead to the end of the session, what has to pass and what will you deem a failure if it doesn't pass?"
Good question. Every leader has to have targets, goals, a picture in his mind of where he/she wants to take us, right?
Not our governor.
"Well, I've always been careful not to answer questions like that," replied Gov. Douglas, "because I don't want to set a mark that may or may not be achieved."
Some may wonder how Vermont could have a leader who staunchly refuses to tell Vermonters exactly where he's leading them.
Others may point out that Jimbo's refusal to set goals merely reflects the priceless wisdom gained over his four decades as a successful politician.
After all, a governor without any goals can never be accused of failing to meet them. Bravo, James!
Let's dub it "Gov. Scissorhands' Teflon Strategy."
And so far, folks, it's working.