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Editorial: Troubling end to a troubling case

In granting parole to Nancy Lamprey last week, the state effectively ended more than a decade of heartbreaking legal wrangling surrounding her crime and punishment. The case should provide a cautionary lesson for judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys about the perils of unusual sentences.

Lamprey is the local babysitter who was convicted in 2001 of killing 10-year-old Katie Silva and seriously injuring five other children in a truck crash on the way home from a Loudon bus stop. The children were in the back of her truck without seat belts. While purposely fishtailing her truck, Lamprey lost control and hit a tree. At trial, some children described it as a game of “swervies.”

In sentencing Lamprey to prison more than a decade ago, Judge Edward Fitzgerald gave her 15 to 30 years in prison but said he would consider reducing the sentence if she came up with a “comprehensive” community service plan promoting seat belt use. In some situations, perhaps, such a bargain might have made sense, might have worked. In this case, however, the sentence no doubt felt like a bait-and-switch to a convict unable to fulfill the wishes of the judge and parole board – and a cruel fate for the families of the children who didn’t like the arrangement and were forced to relive the tragedy as Lamprey repeatedly requested early release from prison.

After the initial sentence, Lamprey quickly created a flyer about the accident in which she said she didn’t know how the tragedy happened – a sentiment the victims’ families found offensive.

Later she started mailing letters and pamphlets to schools and day-care centers advocating seat-belt safety. She became certified in showing people how to promote car seats and started a group that spoke to scouting groups about safety.

Lamprey asked to be let out of prison in 2004 and again three years later. When the judge ultimately said yes in ’07, the parole board effectively overruled him, telling her not to try again for five years. A month later, she went back to the judge, asking him to suspend the rest of her sentence. Instead, he cut a decade from the sentence, requiring her to go back to the parole board before being released, which she did last week.

When Lamprey is ultimately released from prison, however, she has been ordered not to become a high-profile champion of safe driving but to complete her community service requirements as quietly as possible out of respect for the victims’ families who are hoping to finally get some peace.

The notion of forcing a convict to confront her crime, to take public responsibility and to testify powerfully about what she did wrong is not without merit. But in this case, there were at least three potential problems. First, the judge and Lamprey never had the support of the victims’ families, and the sentence appeared to make matters worse for them, not better. Second, Lamprey had pleaded innocent to the crime in court, suggesting that perhaps her truck had malfunctioned; she continued to include such speculation in her initial letters to schools. Finally, Lamprey seemed overmatched by the challenge of effective public speaking and writing.

Did the punishment fit the crime? In this case, a more basic question is this: Did the punishment fit the criminal?

As this piece points out, requiring a convict "to confront her crime, to take public responsibility and to testify powerfully about what she did wrong is not without merit." Lamprey unfortunately did none of the three, implausibly suggesting mechanical failure for the cause of the accident. A failure to take responsibility essentially dooms any application for parole, leaving Lamprey with only one option: convincing her sentencing judge to cut the remainder of her sentence, a tough proposition given the number of victims and their ages.

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