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Editorial: Character witnesses and justice


Friday, September 07, 2018

(Editor’s note: After this editorial was published, Monitor Editor Steve Leone wrote a note to readers, which you can read here.)

Witnesses to the character of a defendant are an essential component of the judicial process. In the sentencing phase of a trial they help a judge distinguish between a bad person and an otherwise good person who makes a bad mistake. A serial predator who preys on children is an example of the former. An adult who enters into a sexual relationship with a minor may be an example of the latter. Input from character witnesses paints a more complete picture of a defendant and helps a judge impose a fairer sentence.

The vilification, and in some cases punishment, of the 23 people who served as character witnesses in the sentencing of Kristie Torbick, the Bedford school counselor convicted of sexually assaulting a young student while employed by the Exeter school district, is both dangerous and troubling.

The character witnesses, primarily educators and health care professionals who worked with the 39-year-old Torbick, were exercising their First Amendment right to comment on a matter of public concern. Since most were or are public employees, that right is specifically guaranteed under New Hampshire law, a law designed to protect workers whose opinions might be contrary to that of their employer.

So far, the fallout for testifying on Torbick’s behalf stands at two resignations, that of former Bedford School District superintendent Chip McGee and Newfound Regional High School counselor Shelly Philbrick, the sanctioning of two Plymouth State University faculty members, and a decision by the university, not to rehire one adjunct faculty member. Meanwhile, a group of Bedford parents is demanding the firing of two school employees who testified on Torbick’s behalf.

We understand the concern of parents reluctant to allow someone who has spoken favorably of a child molester to counsel their children but support for the criminal is not support for the crime. The statements of several witnesses did raise serious questions about their maturity and judgment and may be worthy of discipline, but most of the statements were apparently of the “she’s a wonderful, caring person and we don’t understand why she did what she did” nature. Those speakers should not be punished for participating in the judicial process, as is their right and, perhaps, even their duty.

The New Hampshire chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is right to warn that punishing character witnesses for speaking out interferes with the administration of justice. It has a chilling effect on the willingness of people to come forward for fear of losing their livelihood and becoming the target of attacks that in this internet age can be venomous and frightening. If people fear testifying, the due process rights of future defendants are compromised and judges are deprived of important information.

Sadly, news of improper relationships between teachers of both genders and minor students occur with depressing regularity. Every school district, indeed every employer, public and private, should understand that their employees have the right to speak out as individuals and give testimony in court. When they do, they should not be punished for it.