By Eric Francis
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION – Letters from nearly a dozen teachers and adult friends urging the court to give a teenager busted for selling drugs in a classroom at Hartford High School a second chance may have made all the difference.
Wearing a crisp blue oxford shirt, Shane Phillips, who turned 20 at the beginning of this month, took the witness stand in his own defense last Friday and contritely told Judge Patricia Zimmerman, “I was just doing things to hang out. When you get in trouble you realize how much of a mistake it was.”
“Everything I do reflects upon me and my family and the people around me,” Phillips continued. Nodding an acknowledgement to Phillips’ mother seated in the courtroom’s front row, Judge Zimmerman prompted, “Do you want to tell her she was right?”
“She knows she was right and I know I was wrong,” Phillips replied, adding, “A lot of things were a shock to her and I feel bad that I let her down.”
Phillips was busted a year ago after detectives with the Vermont Drug Task Force watched him step outside on a break from his job at Spooner’s Restaurant in Woodstock and sell 33 Oxycontin tablets to an informant for a “partial payment” of $1,800 while an audio survellience tape caught Phillips saying he could “get a lot of snow (cocaine)…and if (the informant) sold the pills faster he would give them 100 pills at a time,” according to Detective Dennis Coughlin’s affidavit.
The same informant claimed to have sold more than 400 pills for Phillips over the course of four months at a price of $60 for each 60-milligram tablet and $80 for each 80 mg tablet. The informant reported doing drug deals with Phillips numerous times at his house, in the parking lot outside his house, outside Spooner’s Restaurant, and at a Cumberland Farms in Wilder.
It was just days after Phillips was arraigned on that felony drug sale charge and a misdemeanor possession of marijuana count, that police said he turned around in April and sold a single Xanax pill to a boy in his science classroom. That led to additional charges of felony sale of drugs to a minor on school property and to an accompanying misdemeanor count of violating a court-ordered pre-trial release condition.
During Friday’s sentencing hearing, Vermont Assistant Attorney General Robert Menzel urged the judge to put Phillips, who graduated as a member of the HHS Class of 2010, behind bars for six months and then suspend the rest of an 18-to-36 month sentence in order to reinforce the message, “that if you are dealing drugs in Vermont the state is going to seek jail time.”
“He sold over thirty “Oxy 60s” in front of Spooners,” Menzel noted, adding, “That’s a pretty significant amount of pills…and Oxycontin is the leading prescription drug of abuse in Vermont.”
Referring to a pre-sentencing investigation in which Phillips was interviewed by a probation officer about his illegal activities, Menzel said, “There seems to be a lot of minimization. He sort of downplays his knowledge of drugs and what they cost. He was concerned that his name had been ‘slandered’ in the newspapers for things that he admitted that he did. It’s not clear that he realizes the situation that he is in.”
“Notwithstanding that he may have pulled himself together in the past seven or eight months, there still has to a consequence for the earlier part of the year,” Menzel concluded.
When it became his turn to speak, Phillips’ defense attorney, William Donahue, said that, “while ‘slandered’ probably was not the right word, it did hurt him deeply to see his name bandied about the Upper Valley as a drug dealer.”
Donahue described Phillips as a young man whose “life was a shambles” after his father, a beekeeper in his homeland of Guiana, died in an accident at the country’s main airport when a scaffold collapsed from under him as he was trying to remove a hive that had been bothering travelers. Donahue said that, lacking role models and angry at his father’s death, Phillips had simply fallen in with a bad crowd. The pre-sentence investigation had shown that Phillips was “a low risk to re-offend,” Donahue noted, arguing, “It costs money to incarcerate somebody for needless purposes and I suggest to you that this is a unique defendant…an individual who is not only likely to live a productive life but who is likely to soar.”
Donahue also noted that a felony conviction on Phillips’ record would prevent him from ever traveling again to Guiana to visit his extended family.
After taking a half-hour recess to go back into her chambers and re-read the letters sent in on Phillips’ behalf, Judge Zimmerman returned to open court and said that the teachers, guidance counselors, and even the assistant principal who busted Phillips had persuaded her that he should have the benefit of a five-year deferred sentence – meaning that if Phillips stays out of trouble for five years no sentencing takes place and the charge is eventually expunged from his record.
“You participated in poor, high-risk choices,” Zimmerman said, “And in no way am I minimizing your criminal behavior (however)…I can’t help but weigh those letters…particularly the letters from educators who described you as not being in trouble at school, as being respectful, witty, intelligent, with extraordinary potential…and describing you as having ‘a new humility’ after you were arrested.”
“It does not appear to me (that you) have a criminal thinking process. You weren’t raised that way, there is nothing in your background to support that,” Zimmerman said, noting, “Sometimes people can pull it together and put on a nice show for sentencing…but I find you credible. I’m going to defer your sentence for five years.”
“Thank you!” Phillips immediately replied before turning to hug his mother.
This article first appeared in the February 3rd print edition of the Vermont Standard.