Court affirms library rejection for killer
By THATCHER MOATS Times Argus Staff | September 01,2008
MONTPELIER — Convicted murderer Edwin Towne now lives in a federal penitentiary in Adelanto, Calif., but the former Richmond resident is still keeping Vermont courts busy.
Last week, the Vermont Supreme Court upheld a decision to reject Towne's recent complaint that he did not have proper access to legal materials.
Towne has filed nine post-conviction relief petitions, or PCRs, and like the most recent complaint, they have all been denied, court records state.
Found guilty of the 1986 murder of Paulette Crickmore, a 15-year-old Richmond girl, Towne is serving a 70-year federal firearms sentence, and, in 2033, he will begin his 70-year-to-life state sentence for murder.
Crickmore's body was found by hunters in the woods in Duxbury about two months after she went missing on Sept. 10, 1986. She was shot in the head three times and police believe she was sexually assaulted.
Towne had been previously convicted of rape and kidnapping in cases dating back to 1976 and 1983.
As police searched Towne's house on a separate firearms charge, they found the .32 caliber handgun that they determined was used in Crickmore's slaying.
The most recent complaint was filed by Towne first in Windham Superior Court, against Vermont Corrections Commissioner Robert Hoffman. Towne asserted the Department of Corrections was denying him proper access to legal materials.
The state moved to dismiss the complaint on several grounds and the Windham Superior Court granted that request. Towne appealed the decision to the Vermont Supreme Court, which last week upheld the lower court's decision.
A panel of three Vermont Supreme Court justices reviewed the complaint and wrote a two-page entry order outlining their opinion. They first affirmed the lower court's decision and then rehashed some of the grounds the lower court based its decision on.
The courts said Towne lacked standing because he did not show that he was "injured." The Supreme Court's decision said "inmates must show that a non-frivolous legal claim was frustrated or impeded by the failure of access" to legal materials.
And Towne's claim was frivolous, the justices wrote, because he was essentially rehashing old arguments that have been rejected repeatedly.
"What they're really saying is this is old wine in new bottles," said Vermont Law School Law Professor Michael Mello.
The entry order states: "As the trial court explained, petitioner has litigated and re-litigated the same claims, and they have been repeatedly denied. In his Rule 75 complaint he alleged that had he been provided meaningful access to the courts, he might have discovered a certain law apparently related to a felon's right to bear arms (which is apparently related to the validity of the petitioner's arrest), he could have proved his actual innocence, and he could have demonstrated that he received ineffective assistance of counsel. These claims have already been raised and rejected, and petitioner is barred from raising them again."
Though the court said Towne is "barred" from making these claims again, Mello said there is nothing preventing Towne from continuing to file PCRs that make the same claims.
"What they mean is, he's barred from winning on it," said Mello. "He's not going to get a new trial."
Towne could continue to mail the PCRs to the Superior Court, where they will be filed and rejected, Mello said.
Mello said that courts are reluctant to shut the door for good on prisoners' motions and complaints. He recalled a case in Alabama where an inmate filed about 95 motions and the court said he could not file any more. But he said that was a rare situation.
And, Mello said, "Very often there's more paperwork involved and time spent preventing them from doing it again then just going through the normal course."
Mello said the length of the two-page opinion was what he found most interesting.
The Supreme Court could have simply affirmed the lower court's decision, Mello said, but instead outlined their reasoning.
He said this tells him the opinion was directed to Towne, the lower court, and no one else.
"This is to make a statement to Edwin Towne and the statement is to 'knock it off,' and I doubt he'll listen," said Mello.
Mello, who said access by prisoners is something he "litigated hard" in Florida, said Towne doesn't appear to have any grounds on which to dispute the decision.
But he said the court's argument about standing and the fact that Towne did not show injury was unconvincing.
"As a purely legal matter, the reasoning was not all that persuasive," he said.
Mello said if Towne is right that without a library he can't make the legal claims about why he should win, then he has been "injured."
Mello also said the opinion created a Catch-22.
"You don't get a library unless you can prove that you need a library, but you can't prove that you need one unless you have access to one," Mello said.
He said he thought it was unfortunate that the Supreme Court chose to focus on standing, because there were plenty of other grounds to reject Towne's complaint on, such as the timeliness of the complaint, which the Supreme Court did acknowledge.