Shooting victim's lengthy sentence raises questions about federal minimums
Published: Sunday, April 1, 2007
By Adam Silverman
Free Press Staff Writer
When the gunfire ended, one young man lay bleeding near a Burlington intersection and another retreated to his nearby apartment, dropped a pistol to the floor and phoned a lawyer for help.
Now, more than two years after a botched, late-night drug robbery spilled into the street and rattled a tranquil neighborhood, one of the men is preparing to report to prison to serve a five-year sentence while the other is about to be released after a three-month stretch.
The sentences of the man about to be incarcerated and the man set to be freed might not be what the casual observer would suspect. The longer sentence went to the shooting victim.
Michael Ryan Manovill, 22, of Hydeville was sentenced late last month on federal charges of carrying a firearm during a drug deal. The man who pulled the trigger, Paul Farrar, 23, of Essex was sentenced in January in state court to a three-month minimum on an assault charge. Farrar is scheduled to be released from prison today.
The incident highlights a disparity in sentencing structures, judicial flexibility and the severity of punishment in the Vermont and the federal court systems. Federal law prescribes sentencing guidelines and rigid mandatory minimums, especially for drug-and-gun offenses. Such strict legal controls do not govern state courts.
Manovill and Farrar brought similar stories to their sentencing hearings: former stand-out high school athletes, upstanding young men who made one critical mistake, little criminal history, a deepening involvement in the drug trade before the shooting, substantial rehabilitation afterward. In Farrar's case, a state judge was able to take that tale into account in crafting a sentence. In Manovill's case in the federal system, his story added up to little more than an interesting anecdote.
All those involved in the case -- police, prosecutors, defense lawyers, family members of the suspects, neighborhood residents -- agree something is amiss when a shooting victim is embarking on a prison term 20 times longer than the shooter's sentence.
"Somebody who's shot and gets five years, and someone who does the shooting but gets 90 days -- that strikes me as inequitable," said Chittenden County's lead prosecutor, T.J. Donovan. "Usually it's the other way around."
What the participants disagree on is an outcome that would have been more fair. Law enforcement authorities and neighbors wish Farrar's sentence had been longer, more in line with what Manovill received. His attorney and supporters, though, say fairness would have allowed the federal judge to look at Manovill's life in its entirety and hand down a shorter sentence, like Farrar's, that reflected his substantial rehabilitation.
"It's just a terrible miscarriage of justice," said Manovill's attorney, John Pacht. "He doesn't need to be in jail at all."
From robbery to shooting
The shooting occurred about 11 p.m. Nov. 15, 2005, at the intersection of North and North Willard streets.
Manovill was one of four men who planned to steal 2 pounds of marijuana from Farrar, who was attending the University of Vermont but also conducting a thriving business as a drug dealer out of his neighborhood apartment, according to court papers. The robbers agreed that Manovill, as the biggest and strongest of the bunch, should be the one to carry a gun. They gave him a .22-caliber revolver.
A struggle ensued and Farrar managed to grab the handgun. He chased the robbers out of his apartment, leveled the weapon and fired twice. One of the shots struck Manovill in the back. He fell, while his friends fled, according to court papers.
Manovill was rushed to the emergency room. Police found Farrar in his apartment, the revolver at his feet. He was on the phone with his attorney, Paul Jarvis, asking for advice.
Eventually, the four robbers -- Manovill, Aaron Ruby, and cousins Michael and Peter Charron -- were arrested, along with Farrar and his roommate, John Austin Partain.
The neighborhood was rattled.
"We're always very protective of our children," said Carol McHugh, a mother of two, who lived near a corner grocery struck by Farrar's second shot. "We were shocked when bullets were flying around our neighborhood."
State and federal prosecutors huddled to determine what charges they should bring, and in which court system. The lawyers decided to prosecute all four robbery suspects in federal court on various charges, including carrying a firearm in relation to drug trafficking, a serious felony allegation with a life maximum and a five-year minimum. In state court, meanwhile, Farrar was charged with attempted murder and Partain with conspiracy.
The decisions reflected the prosecutors' belief that all the sentences, in the end, would be similar, participants in the meeting said.
"We anticipated a guy who shot somebody else is going to get a substantial amount of time," said Justin Jiron, the deputy Chittenden County state's attorney who handled the case from the outset. "We actually thought we'd get more time on Farrar. He really deserved the most harsh punishment because his actions were the most grievous."
Farrar faced no federal charges because prosecutors agreed it would be difficult to link the shooting and the drug deal conclusively enough to meet the federal threshold. The robbers deserved the federal response because they brought the gun to the scene, said Vermont's U.S. Attorney, Tom Anderson, who was an assistant prosecutor at the time.
"They had hatched this plan, and they were executing it until the guy fought back," he said.
In federal court proceedings, the Charrons agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and later pleaded guilty to reduced charges of conspiracy to use and carry a firearm in relation to drug trafficking, according to court records. Michael Charron received a one-year sentence and Peter Charron, two years of probation.
Manovill, who recovered from his wounds, and Ruby pleaded guilty to the higher charge -- other counts of conspiracy and drug possession were dismissed -- and were sentenced to the five-year mandatory minimum.
In state court, a jury acquitted Partain in August, and in the fall Farrar pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of aggravated assault. At a Jan. 3 sentencing hearing, prosecutors argued for a minimum term of six years, but Judge Geoffrey Crawford suspended all but 90 days of a six-to-10-year stretch.
Attorneys for Manovill and Ruby, 21, of Johnson, said their clients' sentences are far longer than necessary. Both men made a terrible mistake that November night, but they have turned their lives around since then, the lawyers said.
"That's the problem with mandatory minimums. There's no way for the court to take that into account," said Ruby's attorney, Doug Kallen. "That doesn't give someone a legal incentive to engage in some sort of self-help or rehabilitation program."
Prosecutors countered that the sentences for Ruby and Manovill were appropriate, while Farrar's is the aberration.
"It seemed like a fairly lenient sentence, given the conduct involved," said Anderson, the U.S. attorney. "Then to use that sentence as a means to suggest these other guys deserved lenient sentences is just a nonstarter with me."
Jarvis, Farrar's attorney, did not return calls seeking comment last week.
McHugh, the neighbor, called the sentencing of the three men "very strange" because Farrar's term was so much shorter.
"Our federal and state laws should match more closely," said McHugh, a 42-year-old elementary school teacher who moved to Colchester with her family last summer. "We want our neighborhoods to be safe and we need laws that send that message and aren't a slap on the wrist."
State and federal prosecutors, aligned on arguing Farrar's sentence was too short, disagree on the merits of guidelines and mandatory minimums. Donovan, the Chittenden County state's attorney, said he prefers that judges have flexibility, even if it occasionally results in sentences prosecutors dislike. The overall result, he said, is more likely to be a fair one.
"Each person has a life story to tell, and that's relevant at sentencing," Donovan said. "I would rather have a judge who is listening to all the evidence in the courtroom make that decision, rather than an administrator in the Department of Justice sitting in Washington."
Anderson defended federal sentencing rules as the will of the people, as expressed through their representatives in Congress, which defines minimums and guidelines. Kallen said that's just the problem.
"The U.S. Congress, a group of politicians, essentially is saying, 'We don't trust judges to make good decisions,'" he said.
Manovill and Ruby have accepted their sentences, their attorneys wrote in court papers. Manovill told his family he's also come to terms with the disparity between his term and the sentence meted out to the man who shot him, according to an e-mail from Manovill's mother, Vyonne, on file at federal court.
"If he had to serve six to 10 years," Manovill said, referring to Farrar, "it wouldn't make my five years go any easier."
Manovill is scheduled to report to prison May 1.