By Guy Page
October 11, a day after Vermont Superior Court Judge Justin Jiron released to his mother’s custody a Clyde River fisherman who police say bashed a man in the head and then tried to drown him for entangling his line, Gov. Phil Scott defended the judge with a long record of ‘catch and release’ decisions.
But at today’s press conference, Scott took a stronger stance against the growing judicial practice of releasing accused offenders back into society.
Caleb Maniscalchi, 21, of Manchester, N.H., reportedly hit another Clyde River, Newport fisherman in the head with a rock and then tried to drown him. Only the intervention of another angler prevented him, according to a Caledonian-Record report of his October 10 appearance before Jiron in Orleans County Superior Court. In addition to being released to his mom for 24-hour-curfew, he had to sign an unsecured $5000 appearance bond.
Scott appointed Jiron to the criminal court bench in 2021 and reappointed him this year. Some of Jiron’s other release decisions have made waves among Northeast Kingdom law enforcement and press, including:
In May, Jiron found no probable cause for Vermont State Police arrest of a man for burglarizing a St. Johnsbury pizzeria. He issued the decision through a clerk, rather than follow the usual practice of telling the state’s attorney and police in open court. “The fact that he didn’t even taken the bench to address it is pretty egregious,” State’s Attorney Jessica Zaleski reportedly told the Caledonian-Record. “Without an explanation from the judge it’s pretty hard to figure out what exactly is missing.”
Last October, Jiron dropped felony drug trafficking-to-minors charges against the operator of the Best Buds Smoke Shop in St. Johnsbury. The man’s arrest followed a six-month investigation by state authorities. Jiron said the bust lacked probable cause due to lack of witnesses.
A ‘person of interest’ in the December 1, 2022 shooting death of David Peatman, 66 at his home in Eden was released on $300 bail – and then failed to show for two St. Johnsbury court appearances. The suspect, Shawn Rich, already had a history of hiding from the law. Whether Rich has appeared before a Vermont court since December, 2022 is not known.
These decisions and others led state senator Russ Ingalls to fume in a June 2023 letter to fellow senators: “This guy is still a judge?!”
At the October 11 press conference, VDC noted Jiron’s pattern of catch-and-release and asked Scott, “Did you make a mistake with him?”
“I have to have faith in his judgment and what he’s doing,” Scott answered. “I don’t know anything about the specific cases, but I think he made it to the next level to become a judge because I had faith in his integrity and ability to make those decisions.”
Despite standing by his man on October 11, Scott signaled impatience with the catch-and-release practice at his press conference today.
A Rutland Herald reporter asked about his city’s Democratic mayor questioning the judicial catch and release policy. Scott responded: “We need to make sure people are held accountable. We can’t just let people go.”
The Herald asked why there’s more courtroom catch and release now than in years past. “I think it’s a legislative initiative,” Scott said “It’s happened over time.”
The practice should be addressed in the upcoming Legislature, Scott suggested.