Elodie Reed, St. Albans Messenger
ST. ALBANS — The natural question to every challenging situation is: how to move forward.
That query was on everyone’s mind Monday as Richard J. Laws, a 49-year-old man who was convicted of kidnapping, raping and beating a woman in 1992 and was released last Thursday after maxing out his 22-year sentence, stood in a courtroom once again.
The victim of the assault, Susan Russell of the Mad River Valley area, was among those thinking about the future as indicated in an email interview with the Messenger this morning.
Laws was arraigned in Franklin County Superior Court, Criminal Division yesterday on a charge of driving with a criminally suspended license, to which he pleaded not guilty. The charge stemmed from a Saturday incident, when Vermont State Police pulled over Laws while he drove on Route 105 in Sheldon following reports of a car operating erratically.
Upon further investigation, VSP found Laws to be driving with a criminally suspended license. According to court affidavits, Laws told police he thought his license was only suspended civilly, though DMV records show his license was suspended criminally on Feb. 18, 1991 for DUI.
Court documents show that Laws told a state trooper that he felt it was worth the risk to drive on Saturday since the erratic operation had happened when his girlfriend, who had been driving, was not feeling well. The two were allegedly on their way back from eating lunch in Newport.
Laws later told police that potholes and strong wind also contributed to poor driving conditions.
Laws arrived in court Monday with the intention of representing himself, though after Judge Alison Arms offered him an opportunity to speak with a public defender, Laws took it.
“I’m ready to proceed today but I’d like a quick moment with the state’s attorney,” Laws told Arms. “I’d like to resolve [my charge] in the present moment.”
When Laws returned to the room, Arms asked him if he reached an agreement with a state’s attorney.
“No ma’am,” Laws answered. He entered his not guilty plea, and Arms asked him if he wanted to be represented by an attorney.
“I’ll figure something out,” Laws said, “but I’m not going with a public defender.”
He added, “I don’t see any sense in wasting taxpayers’ dollars.”
Laws has until May 1 to get an attorney, which is when he is due back in court. In the meantime, Arms informed Laws he needed to sign a form informing him of his conditions of release, which included him going to court when told to, informing his attorney or the court clerk of his current address and phone number, not picking up any new charges, and not driving any motor vehicle without a valid driver’s license.
As he left the St. Albans courthouse yesterday, Laws talked to reporters about his decision to plead not guilty, his plans for the foreseeable future and his thoughts being back in front of a judge just days after being released from prison.
“I wanted to plead [guilty] but they wanted jail time,” said Laws. His charge carries possible penalties of up to two years in prison, as well as a fine of up to $5,000, a mandatory minimum fine of $300 and 40 hours of community service.
“They wanted to go for a PSI [presentence investigation],” said Laws, “and the problem I have with that is, our Department of Corrections does a PSI.” He added that he felt the DOC has been misleading the public about his case – saying that he refused to go through sex offender treatment and that he was non-compliant – and that he did not want to go back to prison.
When asked what his plans were, Laws said he was going to look for an attorney and try to find other ways to get back on track. At the moment, he has no home, money or job, and he has no DOC supervision or guidance since he maxed out his sentence.
“I’m homeless,” he said. Currently Laws’ address is listed at “General Delivery, Burlington, Vermont” and he said he was released from prison last week with just $200. He said he received that money thanks to his caseworker and the Northern Correctional Facility Superintendent Shannon Marr.
With the little cash he had, Laws bought a smart phone and some clothes. In general, he said, the release process has been overwhelming after being in prison for over two decades.
“The Barre Police Chief, Tim Bombardier, had to show me how to answer my phone,” said Laws.
He added that he felt aid with his reintegration back into society was the responsibility of DOC, which wasn’t doing its duty. “This is the job of the Department of Corrections,” he said. “If you take somebody and lock someone up in prison for so long, they don’t have any access to [services].”
When one reporter asked if Laws felt he had a future in Vermont, since he is a high profile registered sex offender, he said he didn’t plan on being anywhere else.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said. He added that he planned to stay out of trouble. “I’m not going to harm anyone. I just want to live my own life.”
While Laws is navigating through his life post-prison, his sexual assault victim, Susan Russell, is trying to do the same.
Russell, who is an outspoken sexual violence victim’s advocate from Mad River Valley and who gave the Messenger permission for her name to be used, said in an email that the release of Laws and the DOC policies of no supervision have posed a challenge for her own peace of mind.
“[I]t took me almost a decade to stop thinking about [Richard Laws] every day and the horrible traumatic experience I had of being kidnapped, raped and nearly beaten to death and then left for dead,” Russell wrote. “It was a long painful slow healing process, physically, financially… and spiritually[.] I recall being in so much pain that I thought if I had died it would not hurt as much.”
She added that the last two years have brought back traumatic feelings, dreams and thoughts.
“Once again [Richard Laws] is on [my] mind and my husband’s mind way too much,” Russell said. “It does not really surprise me that he has broken the law again.”
She added, “However, I am extremely grateful to know that as far as we know he has not harmed another human being.”
When asked whether she felt DOC policies were adequate to address the protection of victims of sexual violence, she said yes and no.
“While I appreciate the notification process and opportunities I have had to meet with [DOC] Victim Advocates, there needs to be more done in the future,” Russell said. “I do not understand why a sex offender who has not been treated, [is] homeless and has no training for jobs is released etc., [w]hy he would be released into our society without supervision.”
She added, “I understand he has served his time – but he should have received a life time sentence as he nearly killed me.”
In looking at the future, Russell said that in addition to help from law enforcement across the state and a 10-year restraining order on Laws from entering the Mad River Valley, she has the support of her friends, family and community keeping her safe.
“They will be vigilantly watching out for us forever,” she said. “In a few weeks/months [when] all is quiet and the public has forgotten what he looks like, I know the members of the Mad River Valley will still be there for us – our invisible safety net will remain in place forever.”
Russell also said doing her victim’s advocacy work has helped her move forward on a more personal level. In October, for instance, she helped lead a series of discussions in St. Albans on how to address sexual violence within church communities.
“It helped a great deal to be able to become an outspoken advocate for other victims and help to promote positive change for victims both through policies and practices,” Russell said. “I never want anyone else to have to suffer in the many ways I have had to do.”