by Bethany M. Dunbar
Yet much of the rest of the day was spent in a “condensed homicide case,” as the federal prosecutor put it, in United States District Court here.
On its face, the sentencing hearing was meant to determine how much time Mr. Fletcher should spend in jail for creating, receiving, and possessing child pornography. But prosecutors argued that he should serve more time for that offense if he was also involved in an unrelated killing.
In a complicated twist of the rules of sentencing in two different court systems, Chief Judge Christina Reiss of the U.S. District Court told attorneys in court on Wednesday, May 29, that she would listen to evidence of the homicide.
“The law is fairly firm,” she said, that she can consider this evidence. “I am less convinced as to how it can be used.”
Ms. O’Hagan was a beloved grandmother and community volunteer who lived in Sheffield. She was 78 years old when she was killed. She was missing for a month before her body was found in the woods in the next town.
Mr. Fletcher is 26 years old and lives in Sheffield.
Assistant U.S. Attorney William Darrow has yet to spell out a recommended sentence to the court, but he has asked the judge to consider a longer jail term based on criminal activity Mr. Fletcher was likely involved in — even though he has never been charged for it or convicted of it.
In a lengthy sentencing memorandum filed May 17, Mr. Darrow spells out the evidence to suggest that Mr. Fletcher and Michael Norrie, 22, also of Sheffield both had a part in the death and disposal of the body of Ms. O’Hagan on September 10, 2010. The memo says Mr. Fletcher knew details of the crime scene and the scene where the body was found that were not known by anyone but police and the killers. It also includes Mr. Fletcher’s confession, although the descriptions of the events of the night Ms. O’Hagan died vary considerably from interview to interview.
The sentencing memo says that including information about the homicide is legal in federal sentencing, where the U.S. Attorney must only have a preponderance of the evidence to talk about the past behavior of a defendant. To get a homicide conviction in state court, the prosecutors would need to meet a higher standard of proof — guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Sentencing guidelines in federal district court are not mandatory. But in order for a judge to increase a sentence beyond the guidelines, the judge must do a guideline analysis.
In Mr. Fletcher’s defense, Attorney Karen Shingler said even if the guidelines are not increased, her client is looking at 21 years in jail. That is because Mr. Fletcher is already serving time for other unrelated charges, so he cannot get credit for time served for those until February 2016. That means a 15-year sentence would keep him in jail until 2031.
The judge decided to divide the sentencing hearing into two parts. The first was about the child pornography case. The second part of the sentencing — testimony about the murder of Pat O’Hagan — started on May 29 but was not finished. The judge set June 11 to hear the rest of the testimony.
On November 17, 2011, a grand jury passed a seven-count indictment for child pornography. Charges include production, receipt and possession of child pornography. Mr. Darrow says Mr. Fletcher found a 12-year-old girl who lived in Utah online while he was at home on furlough from other convictions. He told her he loved her and would be her boyfriend, and convinced her to take pornographic pictures of herself on her cell phone to send to him. He told her that he would kill himself if she didn’t do it. He sent her photos of himself with a gun to his own head, according to court records.
Ms. Shingler described Mr. Fletcher, 24 years old at the time, as “a very immature kid.”
Mr. Darrow said Mr. Fletcher was not a kid, as he had already been convicted of aggravated assault for threatening to kill a man with a shotgun, and another charge of assault for threatening a woman with a knife. He was on furlough when he committed this crime, which, the attorney said, is why the sentences must be served after ones he is already serving — not at the same time.
Mr. Fletcher’s 12-year-old victim is now 15, and she flew to Vermont from Utah to testify. A slight, soft-spoken teenager, she walked to the podium and read a prepared statement. She said she met “Richie” online when she was in the middle of a hard time in her own life. Her mother was quite sick, and her father had his own issues. Mr. Fletcher gave her attention she needed at the time.
“He acted like he cared about me and made me feel important,” she said. “He would listen when I needed to talk about all the things that were happening in my life. The hardest thing now is coming to grips with the fact it wasn’t a sincere relationship. The relationship alienated me from my parents at a time when I really needed to be close to them.”
She said he called her all the time when she was in school and made it hard to focus, and he called her at night and kept her awake all night talking to him. “The worst part was the pressure he put on me to send him pictures of myself,” she said. “I was scared and overwhelmed. I was only 12 at the time, so this was definitely not what I should have been dealing with. I didn’t do any of the things a normal kid my age was doing.”
“Today is the first time I have ever seen Richie in person. Part of me still wants to believe he is the person I got to know online, but the bigger part of me knows he is not. It makes me both sad and very angry. I hope he never has the chance to hurt anyone else the way he hurt me and my family.”
Ms. Shingler argued that the case is a run-of-the-mill child pornography case and much smaller than many.
“This is a production case, small p,” she said. Mr. Fletcher received six images, did not share them with anyone, did not obtain money for them or put them online, she said.
Judge Reiss dismissed one of the seven counts in the case, saying that a person cannot be convicted of both receiving and possessing the same piece of pornography. Mr. Darrow has filed a motion to reconsider, saying the receipt and possession charges stemmed from different times. The possession count was for owning the pornography more than a week after Mr. Fletcher received it.
Ms. O’Hagan’s sons, a nephew, and others were on hand for the sentencing hearing. At the end of the long court day, they came out to give a brief statement to the press.
“We were hoping that it would have been resolved today,” said Matt O’Hagan. “It’s been two and a half years for us. So another couple of weeks, we can wait. This is a new process to us.”
He added, “We’re hoping for a positive outcome.”
For much of the afternoon the family watched as police investigators took the stand. They then listened and watched as tapes of police interviews were played in their entirety, a prerogative Ms. Shingler asked for in order to put Mr. Fletcher’s confessions into context — and possibly to raise issues of whether or not the confessions were legal.
“We’re not saying that the state of Vermont will never bring a murder charge against Mr. Fletcher,” said Mr. Darrow. “We’re saying it is not likely,” given the current state of the evidence.
“Would you then ask me to resentence Mr. Fletcher?” asked the judge. She asked if Mr. Darrow wanted a split sentence — one for child pornography with a specified amount of extra time tacked on for homicide.
“I would have to carve off a portion of the sentence,” she said.
Mr. Darrow said he did not expect a two-part sentence with a certain amount of time set for the homicide. Should Mr. Fletcher ever get convicted of homicide, the sentencing judge could consider running the homicide sentence concurrently with the existing sentence, Mr. Darrow said. (In other words, the sentences could be served at the same time.)
Lieutenant J.P. Sinclair of the State Police was the first to take the stand. He is the forensic liaison with the crime lab and was in charge of the team at the crime scene. He described the crime scenes at Ms. O’Hagan’s home and an old class-four road in Wheelock where the body was found later.
Ms. O’Hagan was shot in the head with a small-caliber gun.
Photos of the scenes were displayed on television monitors around the courtroom, but a photo of O’Hagan’s body was not shown during the hearing May 29.
Ms. Shingler argued that it was not necessary.
“It proves nothing, supports nothing that is in dispute,” she said. She said the prejudicial impact of showing it outweighs any advantage. Mr. Darrow said the condition of the body is an issue in the case, as are items at the scene where she was found. The judge suggested the attorneys could stipulate that the body is, indeed, Ms. O’Hagan.
State Police Detective Sergeant Jason Letourneau testified about interviews with Mr. Fletcher, in which he described details of the scenes that were not known publically. In the first interview, Mr. Fletcher said he’d heard things about the crime scene and that he knew rumors were going around town about him and Michael Norrie.
“She was shot, killed, and supposedly raped. That’s what I heard,” Mr. Fletcher told police. “I heard there was a shot in the ceiling.”
Police had released no details of the scene, and in fact, there was a shot in the ceiling and Ms. O’Hagan had been shot. Her body was left with no pants or underpants on, and it was not buried.
Mr. Fletcher was interviewed three times, and during one of the interviews, police seem to badger him and say they know he is not telling the truth. In a second one, police spend a half an hour before the interview asking him for advice fixing a clutch in a vehicle, even asking him to look at a photo of the problem on the officer’s cell phone.
“I think it’s important for the judge to understand the kind of professional tactics that were used,” said Ms. Shingler.
“I don’t think it was your idea,” says one of the officers interviewing Mr. Fletcher in the second interview. “Did you try to help her? Was she already dead?”
“I got sucked into it,” says Mr. Fletcher at one point. “I’m not wearing a wire,” he says later in response to a suggestion by the officers that he could help them convict Mr. Norrie.
A video interview with Mr. Norrie shows him weeping and almost incoherent.
In the first interview, Mr. Fletcher says he has heard things but doesn’t admit being on the scene. In later interviews he says he helped Mr. Norrie dispose of the body. He says Mr. Norrie shot Ms. O’Hagan accidentally during a robbery.
“When I left, she was standing there alive,” he says at one point. Then he says he heard two gunshots.
To put the statements in perspective, the officer says he interviewed about 800 people who said they had information about the case, and no one mentioned the gunshot in the ceiling except Mr. Fletcher.
Police took him to the O’Hagan house, asking him to show them how he found the body and the crime scene. He said he saw an end table tipped over (which was the same end table that had been actually tipped over) and described where Ms. O’Hagan’s body was.
The judge asked to hear directly from the state prosecutor, who told Judge Reiss that the state had very little physical and forensic evidence: no seminal fluid, no blood, and no firearms directly linked to the case.
Ms. Shingler said she wanted the judge to hear the entire tapes of some of the interviews because she believes there are issues about whether or not they are admissible.
“The April 11 interview which we have yet to hear… has some clear Miranda violations,” she said. Mr. Darrow said the fourth and fifth amendments would not be applicable in this case.
Testimony will continue on June 11.
contact Bethany M. Dunbar at [email protected]