by Terry Karkos
From the Editor: A major focus of the programs of the National Federation of the Blind is justice for blind people. When we talk about rights, we also talk about responsibilities; when we talk about equality of opportunity, we do not mean preferential treatment, but fair and just treatment under the law. When the blind of Maine heard about a blind man’s stealing more than ten thousand dollars from his neighbor drawing no jail time and being required to pay back less than a tenth of what had been stolen, they reacted by expressing concern to the prosecutor, the court, and the newspaper which originally reported the case.
This article first appeared on the Bangor Daily News website on December 3, 2012. It is reprinted with permission.
An Oxford County Superior Court felony theft case earlier this month has raised the ire of members of the National Federation of the Blind of Maine. They’re incensed that a man considered legally blind by the court would receive no jail time and be required to reimburse the victim only a fraction of the value of her household belongings he admitted stealing.
On November 14 Charles E. Hamilton, forty-seven, of Rangeley Place in Rumford pleaded guilty to stealing items valued at eleven thousand dollars from his neighbor’s house in May. As part of the plea bargain, a felony burglary charge was dismissed. Justice Robert W. Clifford gave Hamilton a two-year deferred disposition. That means he must make restitution of twelve hundred dollars at fifty dollars a month through the district attorney’s office and refrain from committing another crime.
When the case began, Hamilton gingerly approached his court-appointed lawyer Maurice Porter and Clifford, sweeping a walking cane for the blind from side to side ahead of him. Prosecutor Joseph O’Connor acknowledged during the bench trial that Hamilton is legally blind and on disability. Clifford said the restitution amount is based on Hamilton’s financial condition. If he fails to meet the obligation, he faces up to five years in prison and a five thousand dollar fine.
When asked Friday if he had any regrets or had received any reaction from the public since pleading guilty, Hamilton said he couldn’t comment, because his case was still before the court. “I don’t know what I’m allowed to say,” he said. Even though Hamilton pleaded guilty and received a deferred disposition, he is correct. The case is still before the court, Rosemary Reese, legal secretary for the district attorney’s office in Paris, said Friday.
She said that if Hamilton makes the required restitution, commits no further crime, and abides by the conditions of the disposition, he will be allowed to plead guilty to a Class D misdemeanor theft and any other charges would be dismissed. Speaking on behalf of O’Connor, Reese said the plea bargain and deferred disposition were not based on Hamilton’s being legally blind or on disability income.
According to O’Connor Reese said the victim knew Hamilton and let him live in her house. “And she allowed him to take some things, so there was a whole bunch of issues with proof on this case.” Reese said some items were recovered and some were not. “There was insufficient evidence,” Reese said. “Basically, (O’Connor) could not prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Patricia Estes and Mark Tardif of the National Federation of the Blind of Maine and Steve Hoad, a former member, said they believe blindness did factor into the court’s decision. They contacted the Sun Journal and said they were outraged after learning about the case’s outcome during a discussion about it on November 15 at a Federation meeting. Estes, of Auburn, is the Federation’s vice president. Estes, Tardif of Grand Isle, and Hoad of Windsor are blind. “The outrage that someone can weasel out of felony theft with no time served and next to no compensation is the same outrage anyone would feel upon hearing such a miscarriage of justice,” Estes stated Tuesday by email. “Blindness had no business factoring into the case at all,” she said. “That it did is all the more outrageous.”
“In my opinion Hamilton should have been punished to the full extent the law allows,” Tardif wrote in a letter to the Sun Journal published Tuesday. “Unfortunately, the legal establishment and Hamilton used stereotypes regarding the blind that responsible blind people have been trying to show are just not accurate. Hamilton seems to have the idea that, because he is blind, the consequences of his criminal behavior should be lessened for him,” Tardif said.
“The circumstances may be a real pitfall in the meting out of justice,” Hoad said Thursday by email. Blind people, whether partially sighted or not, can and do work,” Hoad said. “Although the unemployment rate is high among the blind, there are many well-trained and capable individuals ready for the workforce whose reputation may be negatively affected by any inference that pity rather than justice was involved in this case.”
Tardif said the National Federation of the Blind of Maine is a consumer organization of blind people and their sighted supporters whose intention is to empower blind people to live independent, integrated lives as much as possible. Estes and Tardif said they’ve been working for years to change perceptions about the blind.
“Maine, however, is behind the curve,” Estes said. “The pity for this blind thief was not based on fact, it seems to me, and the next potential employer, admissions office, or job training program will find it hard to accept the blind of Maine who have tried so hard to work, to be educated and trained and to be respected as an individual.”
“Most of us are law-abiding, responsible citizens who expect to be treated on an equal basis with the sighted,” Tardif said.
Hoad agreed. “We are not interested in pity,” Hoad said. “We are living in the real world where reality is exactly the type of treatment we expect.”