by Mike Smith This is not in dispute: Jody Herring is a murderer. She pleaded guilty to shooting to death three of her relatives and a social worker. Last week a judge sentenced Herring to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
But at the sentencing hearing her lawyer, David Sleigh, asked the court to look at Herring not solely as a murderer, but also as a victim. Sleigh showed — through a parade of witnesses — that Herring was trapped in a family with a history of physical, mental and sexual abuse; that as a child she endured seizures after the untimely death of her father; that she became homeless for a time while in her preteens; and that she was abused by men throughout her life.
Sleigh also contended that if the mental health system hadn’t failed Herring, then there’s a possibility this tragedy could have been avoided.
According to Herring’s lawyer, “Jody felt alone, and full of rage and righteous indignation. Her world was a horrible ‘Theater of the Unfair.’”’
And in his closing statement at the sentencing hearing Sleigh said, “Some people endure tragedies and calamities and horrible experiences better than others. That’s because some people are more capable. Some people lack that capability, through no fault of their own, and one of those people is Jody Herring. The system in many ways did let Jody down. Her life has been one of constant traumas, inadequately addressed.”
When given the opportunity to speak to family members and friends of those she had killed, Herring described herself as a victim. “I asked for help several times and I didn’t get it,” she said.
Certainly one could argue that Herring is both a murderer and a victim. Rage is a human emotion that can lead to tragic events. Herring was full of rage when she committed murder, and the root of that rage, her lawyer would contend, was the painful events in her life.
However, there is something unsettling about the argument that others are completely to blame for one’s actions in life, especially murder.
When you blame others for your situation, you refuse to accept responsibility for your own actions and ultimately your own fate. Therefore, your failures are not your fault. From the trial and sentencing deliberations, you never get the impression that Herring feels responsible for any of her actions, she is just sorry they happened.
The Herring case did expose a side of Vermont that perhaps we wish to ignore. In our state we have Vermonters subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse; trapped in poverty and in an environment where they become addicted to drugs and alcohol; and let down by the mental health system. This tragic event will be made even worse if we allow these multigenerational conditions to continue into the future. Already we see one of Herring’s daughters in our criminal justice system.
This case is not over. Herring’s lawyer said he is appealing the judge’s decision. And yet to be resolved are some lingering questions. There’s confusion over the role of Washington County State’s Attorney Scott Williams in disarming Herring on the day of the shooting. Williams was also involved in court proceedings that led to Herring’s 9-year-old daughter being taken from her.
Sleigh subpoenaed Williams to testify at the sentencing hearing, but the judge granted a request to quash the subpoena. VTDigger and other news outlets have reported that Williams was receiving care at the Brattleboro Retreat last week.
Before he handed down his sentence, Washington Superior Court Judge John Pacht said, “I have a great deal of compassion for Jody Herring, but I also have an obligation to assure that this community is safe, that people can start to heal, and the enormity of the crimes are reflected in the sentence.”
The judge got it right.
Mike Smith is a regular columnist for Vermont Business Magazine and VTDigger. He hosts the radio program “Open Mike with Mike Smith” on WDEV 550 AM and 96.1, 96.5, 98.3 and 101.9 FM and is a political analyst for WCAX-TV and WVMT radio. He was the secretary of administration and secretary of human services under former Governor Jim Douglas.