Mistakes may have contributed to 2-year-old’s death, committee finds

By Neal Goswami
MONTPELIER — A special Senate panel will seek subpoena power to obtain records and documents from the Rutland County Criminal Court and the Department of Children and Families in the course of its review of the Dezirae Sheldon case.
The Senate Review Panel on Child Protection was created following the February death of the 2-year-old Sheldon from severe head trauma, allegedly at the hands of her stepfather, Dennis Duby. Members said Wednesday they want to know if mistakes made more than five years ago — and revealed in recent days — could have contributed to Sheldon remaining in an unsafe environment.
Committee co-chairs Sens. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, and Claire Ayer, D-Addison, learned over the weekend of discrepancies in a previous criminal case involving Sheldon’s mother, 31-year-old Sandra Eastman. Sears, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said it is possible that the errors may have influenced decisions made by DCF that allowed Eastman to keep custody of Sheldon despite convictions.
Legislative counsel Michelle Childs, who is reviewing public records and documents related to Sheldon’s death for the committee, told Sears and Ayer over the weekend of mistakes made in a 2008 criminal case.
According to Childs’ review, which was outlined in a letter to committee members Wednesday, Eastman was charged in 2008 with sexual assault for having sexual relations with a 15-year-old boy, a relationship that resulted in her becoming pregnant. She was 24 at the time.
Eastman eventually agreed to a plea deal and entered a guilty plea to lewd and lascivious conduct with a child, a charge that carries a lesser penalty than sexual assault. She was sentenced to 18 months to seven years, all suspended.
The sentence, handed down by Judge Harold Eaton, does not meet the statutory minimum for the crime. Childs said the conviction requires a two year to 15 year sentence.
Additionally, Childs found that an incorrect charge code also appeared on the plea agreement document that led the court and state agencies to believe she was convicted of a different crime, according to Childs.
“The plea agreement was for lewd and lascivious conduct with a child. The amended information identified it as lewd and lascivious conduct with a child but provided an incorrect code for that that was picked up by the court and subsequently tainted all subsequent court records,” she told the panel.
And, there are discrepancies in whether or not Sheldon should have be on the sex offender registry. Her court paperwork indicates she should be a lifelong registrant, but she does not appear on the state’s online site, Childs said.
Those inconsistencies require deeper investigation by the committee, Sears said, which can only be done if privileged records are reviewed.
“For me, there’s enough questions about what happened in this case that I want the committee to consider getting a subpoena power from the Senate,” he said. “I think we have an obligation now to look at some of the records now that are not available to us, and documents, just based on the public documents.”
Sears said he wants to know if such clerical errors are widespread in Vermont’s judicial system.
“How do we know how often this might happen in other cases around the state where plea agreements are made — and that’s 96 percent of the cases that are plea agreements — but where the wrong plea is entered and the defendant is basically treated differently from what the agreement was?” Sears said.
Committee members said they were prepared to seek subpoena power to find answers.
“Why wasn’t it caught? You have Probation and Parole, you have steps along the way,” said Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, who also noted the panel will be required to meet in executive session if it reviews documents and records that are not public.
Despite the mistakes, there is no way yet to tell if it influenced decisions made later by DCF workers, Sears said. Eastman was convicted of cruelty to a child in 2013 for injuries sustained by Sheldon but not reported in a timely manner. Despite the conviction, DCF returned Sheldon to live with Eastman shortly before the girl’s death.
A criminal case into Sheldon’s death is ongoing, as well as an internal review by DCF. Agency of Human Services Secretary Doug Racine, who attended Wednesday’s hearing, said he could not comment on the revelations regarding Eastman.
“What I heard was news to me. I have no way of evaluating it. I don’t know the legalities and technicalities to know what difference that clerical error would have meant in the evaluation of any particular case, and I certainly can’t talk about this one,” Racine said.
The ongoing criminal investigation, meanwhile, has slowed the internal review, according to Racine.
“There are no conclusions that have been drawn yet and there is an ongoing criminal investigation, which takes precedence. We have to defer to that investigation,” he said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

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