by Chris Braithwaite
copyright the Chronicle August 11, 2010
NEWPORT — Hour after hour, month after month, year after year, George St. Francis has sat in courtrooms and listened to important people talk about him.
Judges, lawyers, guardians, state officials and psychologists have discussed his intelligence, or lack of it, his sexual proclivities and, critically, his future.
Finally, on Monday, Mr. St. Francis got a chance to speak for himself.
A day-long hearing ended with Mr. St. Francis in the witness chair, chatting with Judge Walter Morris. They talked about a tractor Mr. St. Francis helped repair on the Wolcott farm where he lives with his wife, Kathy, and his friend Dayton Lamphere.
They talked about how Mr. St. Francis handles his money, and who gets him to his sessions with his therapist in Newport.
Despite his pleasant, conversational tone, Judge Morris wasn’t just passing the time. He was, finally, seizing the opportunity to make his own assessment of the man whose freedom he holds, however reluctantly, in his hands. His questions seemed designed to gain a sense of what Mr. St. Francis can do, how closely he is supervised, how he might fare in the world if freed from the constraints he’s lived under since 1996.
Underlying those genial questions about Mr. St. Francis’ personal welfare lay the question that has followed him through his adult life: If he is left on his own, will the public be safe from him?
Mr. St. Francis has his advocates, and they argue passionately that, ever since he was legally labeled retarded when he was 18, Mr. St. Francis has been misdiagnosed and mistreated by the state and its agents.
He has won some major battles, with their help. First he got away from Safe Choices, a treatment and supervision program for dangerous sex offenders who are so severely mentally handicapped that they can’t be put on trial.
Mr. St. Francis didn’t belong in that program, and there is ample evidence on the record that it treated him wretchedly.
Then he got away from the control of the state-appointed guardian who sent him to Safe Choices and left him there, over his strenuous objections, for 13 years.
He escaped the close supervision of Sterling Area Services in Morrisville when his new, private guardian let him get married and move onto his bride’s farm.
Now, finally, the only authority left to restrict him is the Orleans Family Court in the person of Judge Morris, a soft-spoken, invariably polite former public defender who is just weeks away from retirement.
During a brief hearing on Friday, August 6, Sterling bowed out of the case. Its attorney, Robert Halpert, seemed particularly cheerful as he strode out of the courtroom.
On Monday Vida Lyon of the state Office of the Public Guardian and her attorney, Special Assistant Attorney General Kim Velk, gave up their seats at a table inside the bar in the big courtroom and took folding chairs alongside a handful of other interested spectators. “The state is not advocating now for any particular position,” Ms. Velk had told the judge on Friday.
That left no one in the courtroom to argue with the two lawyers who advocate for Mr. St. Francis — his lawyer, Susan Davis, and Gertrude Miller, who is representing his new guardian, Janet Reed.
Judge Morris, who generally sits as arbiter between opposing lawyers, noted the problem as Monday’s hearing opened.
“It will not be an adversarial proceeding,” he said. There won’t be anybody to jump to his or her feet and oppose the introduction of any evidence the two remaining lawyers might offer, he noted.
And if they led their witnesses, who would object?
Judge Morris finally did so as the afternoon wore on, in the mildest possible terms. Of the evidence she was drawing from a witness, the judge told Ms. Miller, “Its probative value is affected by the leading nature of your questions.”
If he didn’t cross-examine the witnesses, Judge Morris did take his turn, after the two attorneys, in asking them questions.
Ms. Miller’s first witness offered evidence that undermined the basis of the judgment that put Mr. St. Francis’ life in the hands of the state.
Dr. Eric Mart, a forensic psychologist from Manchester, New Hampshire, said — in more technical language — that Mr. St. Francis isn’t retarded.
In a test he administered earlier this year, Dr. Mart said, Mr. St. Francis demonstrated an IQ of 80, well above the score of 70 required for a diagnosis of mild mental retardation.
Mr. St. Francis, the doctor testified, scored from “moderately below average to below average.”
The “composite intelligence” figure of 80, he added, was derived from scores of 72 in verbal intelligence and 92 in nonverbal intelligence.
Asked to explain how his results differed from earlier, lower scores, Dr. Mart said a person’s IQ doesn’t normally vary over time. If it does, he said, it could indicate other problems, like cultural deprivation or a learning disability.
Dr. Mart said he had also subjected Mr. St. Francis to a “Static 99” measure used to predict the likelihood that a sexual offender will commit another serious crime. (Mr. St. Francis’ lawyers insist, however, that he has never been charged with or convicted of a serious crime.)
Again, his results were better than earlier evaluations of Mr. St. Francis had shown.
Previously rated 5 on a scale of 0 to 10, Mr. St. Francis scored a 4 on Dr. Mart’s test. That would indicate a “moderately high risk,” he said in an interview later.
Because these ratings are matched against the actual behavior of convicted sex offenders, Dr. Mart told the court, the predicted likelihood of reoffending shifted down between 2003 and 2008.
Under the new standard, he testified, there was an 7 percent chance that Mr. St. Francis would offend over a five-year period; an 8 percent chance over ten years. In an earlier application of the test, Mr. St. Francis’ results were much higher: a 26 percent chance over five years and 35 percent over ten years.
In response to a question from the judge, Dr. Mart said Mr. St. Francis poses an “elevated” risk.
“I wouldn’t leave him alone with children,” the doctor said.
After making four round trips from Rutland to hearings that were too filled with legal argument to hear his testimony, psychologist David Egner finally took the stand Monday.
He testified that Mr. St. Francis’ intelligence is “clearly within normal limits.”
“He has been profoundly misdiagnosed,” Dr. Egner told the court. That, he added, is “something I’ve seen a great deal.”
“George has experienced a great deal of trauma,” the psychologist said. He went through the first grade three times, he testified, and was removed from his family home “for abuse multiple times by a parent.”
On the basis of his testing, Mr. Egner said, “it was obvious he has visual, motor and perceptual difficulties that have nothing to do with intelligence.”
“It is abundantly evident that he is not retarded,” Mr. Egner concluded. “George has excellent intelligence.”
When she took the stand, mental health counselor Gretchen Lewis said she has seen many changes in Mr. St. Francis over the past year.
When he first came to her, shortly after leaving Safe Choices, she testified, “He was very withdrawn, spoke very little, made little eye contact.”
“My initial diagnosis was an adjustment disorder, having to come from being in that program for so many years and having to fit into society.”
After about 30 sessions with him, Ms. Lewis said, “It’s pretty amazing how George has changed himself around.”
Their conversations could easily last more than the standard therapeutic hour, she said. “He has a lot to say, talks about how he’s feeling, it’s just very free-flowing and natural.”
Ms. Lewis said she meets alone with Mr. St. Francis, and has never felt physically threatened by him.
“What do you want?” Ms. Davis asked Mr. St. Francis when he finally took his turn on the stand.
“What I want is my life,” Mr. St. Francis replied. “With my wife, to be happy all the time, nobody bugging me.”