MONTPELIER — Whether Jody Herring will get the chance at parole one day is now in the hands of the Vermont Supreme Court.
The court heard oral arguments Tuesday in Herring’s appeal of her murder convictions.
Herring, 43, was sentenced to life without parole in November 2017 for killing Department for Children and Families worker Lara Sobel, 48, and three relatives — cousins Rhonda Herring, 48, Regina Herring, 43, and her aunt, Julie Falzarano, 73. Herring killed Sobel outside the DCF offices at Barre City Place on Aug. 7, 2015. Police said she killed her family members at a Berlin farmhouse earlier that day, although their bodies were not discovered until the next day.
She pleaded guilty to four counts of murder in July 2017.
Because Herring was given a life sentence, state law requires the case be appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court.
She was represented by Joshua O’Hara out of the Defender General’s office. O’Hara filed documents with the court stating Judge John Pacht, who sentenced Herring, abused his discretion because he used Herring’s history of trauma against her instead of using it as a mitigating factor against a life sentence.
O’Hara argued Pacht concluded, erroneously, that Herring would be released without rehabilitation if she were allowed parole. He said when someone has the ability to get parole, whether they are rehabilitated is taken into consideration.
“Jody Herring is not irredeemable,” O’Hara said to the court Tuesday.
Justice Harold Eaton asked O’Hara whether the seriousness of a crime can ever be enough to justify sentencing someone to life without parole. O’Hara said in this state, people are sentenced, not the crimes they commit.
Eaton asked, even if Pacht felt Herring couldn’t be rehabilitated, doesn’t he have the discretion to sentence her how he sees fit? O’Hara said judges do have the discretion to fashion sentences, and when they do that they set the tone and tenor of the case. He said a judge could sentence someone on the basis of the crime they committed, saying the offender is too great of a danger to release back into society.
O’Hara said Pacht didn’t do that, instead saying he was giving Herring life without parole because he wasn’t sure she would get the treatment she needs to rejoin society.
Justice Karen Carroll said she was bothered by O’Hara’s argument: because treatment is offered to those who are incarcerated, someone who is subject to parole has to have been found rehabilitated before they can get released.
“It seems to me that you’re arguing because of that availability no one can ever get sentenced to life without parole,” Carroll said.
O’Hara disagreed, saying Herring in particular is someone who could be redeemed and she would have to show as much to the parole board before getting released. He said Pacht could have sentenced Herring saying she is not redeemable, but instead the judge showed compassion for what Herring had been through in her life.
O'Hara asked the court to reverse the sentencing decision.
The state was represented by Solicitor General Benjamin Battles out of the Attorney General’s office. Battles filed documents with the court saying Pacht wasn’t required to weigh Herring’s past more heavily than the other evidence considered in the case, including the evidence that suggested Herring’s prospects for treatment were “dim.”
Battles argued Pacht also did not sentence Herring with the thought that she would be released on parole without treatment.
Battles said there is no program that the Department of Corrections offers that would give Herring “the exact tools she needs to not commit another murder.” He also referred to the pre-sentence investigation conducted by DOC, which he said did not specify how a parole board would be able to judge if she was rehabilitated.
Battles said Tuesday that Sobel’s death was a “premeditated execution” that followed the three premeditated executions of Herring's family members. He said the effects of the killings are still being felt around the community.
Battles said there was little evidence presented at Herring’s sentencing in favor of her being rehabilitated. He said no treatment plan was discussed and questions were raised as to how amenable Herring would be to treatment. What was discussed at her sentencing hearing, he said, was her difficulty in seeking out treatment and avoiding treatment.