PROVIDENCE â At the core of it was a vexing question that Superior Court Judge Netti Vogel just couldnât let go.
Why would a woman, abandoned in the snow âlike road killâ after a hit-and-run in Woonsocket, suddenly decide that a jail-time sentence was too severe for the driver?
The riveting answers emerged during a bizarre hearing in Vogelâs courtroom Tuesday that led the veteran jurist to do something judges seldom do: she revoked the driverâs previous plea agreement with state prosecutors. That means 31-year-old Betsy J. Feliciano of Woonsocket could get up to 10 years now, whereas she might have escaped jail altogether in trade for her now-defunct guilty plea.
âThe guilty plea is being vacated,â Vogel intoned tersely as Feliciano stood in front of her. âI will not be limited to the terms under these agreements.â
Feliciano is facing one count of leaving the scene of an accident resulting in serious bodily injury to Donna Vanmoerkerque, 39, on Elm Street, the day after New Yearâs in 2011. The police stopped Feliciano for an unrelated traffic violation a day later and noticed a dent in the windshield brace in the shape of a human head.
Feliciano was supposed to be sentenced on April 10, but Vogel postponed the date when Felicianoâs defense lawyer produced a notarized letter from Vanmoerkerque indicating she no longer wanted Feliciano to serve jail time. Another problem for Vogel was that probation officials routinely prepare a pre-sentence report containing a victim-impact statement, but they had been unable to obtain one from Vanmoerkerque because they couldnât locate her, the judge said.
The judge wanted to interview Vanmoerkerque herself before moving forward with sentencing, saying she was concerned about what triggered the change of heart and that Vanmoerkerque might be âduckingâ investigators. Vogel issued a supboena commanding Vanmoerkerqueâs appearance in court Tuesday morning, but the victim was AWOL for that, too.
The judge later issued an order known as a body attachment for Vanmoerkerque, allowing the Woonsocket police to escort her to the courtroom, a maneuver not technically classified as an arrest. Nevertheless, Detective Lt. Eugene Jalette said officers located Vanmoerkerque at 98 Blackstone St. just after noon and delivered her to Superior Court.
âI had to satisfy myself that the victim did not change her position because anyone had forced her to do so,â Vogel said.
Wearing a tie-dyed sweatshirt in day-glo colors and blue jeans, Vanmoerkerque was finally sworn in to face questioning by Vogel about 2:15 p.m.
Was she offered money to change her mind, the judge wanted to know. Threatened? Made promises of any kind?
âNo mâam,â Vanmoerkerque said repeatedly, it wasnât any of those things.
She just wasnât as angry at Feliciano as she used to be.
âEverybody makes mistakes,â she told Vogel. âI think every person is entitled to make one or two in their lives. Itâs a big mistake and no, it shouldnât have happened, but it did.â
But what about the letter, Vogel persisted. Why did she write it?
Vanmoekerque looked at the judge and, in a pleading tone, asked, âI have to tell the truth?â
Of course, Vogel told her, or she could be charged with criminal perjury because she was under oath.
And thatâs when Vanmoerkerque finally told the story about how âBetsyâ â the woman who ran her over â showed up at her apartment, unannounced.
âBetsy came to my apartment and asked me to write the letter,â Vanmoerkerque said. âShe said she needed it for court.â
Vanmoerkerque told the judge that Feliciano had apparently found out where she lived from mutual aquaintances at the church Vanmoerkerque attends. Vanmoerkerque was initially offended that Feliciano had âthe gallâ to track her down, but Vanmoerkerque said she ended up feeling sorry for her. She seemed remorseful, and Vanmoerkerque said they both had something in common: small children.
Vanmoerkerqueâs foregiveness was astounding, given the extent of the wounds she suffered in the hit-and-run. She listed them for the judge at one point: spinal injuries, continuing grand mal seizures, memory loss, pain and weakness in her limbs and hands.
âI just canât do the simple things I was able to do before, wash pans, do dishes,â she said. âI canât stand too long or walk too far.â
Despite the sincerity of Vanmoerkerqueâs testimony, the judge was not amused that Felicianoâs role in the creation of the letter had been deliberately hidden from her before she agreed to accept the plea agreement. Amy Kempe, spokewoman for the attorney general, said later that Feliciano paid Vanmoerkerque the visit on Feb. 25, two days before she agreed to plea guilty in return for âa capped sentenceâ of no more than five years at the Adult Correctional Institutions, half the maximum. Whether any jail time was ordered would have been at the judgeâs discretion.
After listening to Vanmoerkerque, a sullen-faced Feliciano rose to face the judge, with her hands buried in her pockets.
âGet your hands out of your pockets, Iâm sentencing you,â the judge scolded.
Vogel wanted to know how the letter came to be notarized, but Feliciano initially refused to answer the question. After a brief chat with her lawyer, Tom Hanley, she told the judge she had help from a friend.
In the end Vogel ordered Feliciano back to court on May 15 for resentencing. Under state law, she faces a maximum of 10 years in jail, plus suspension of her driving license for up to five years.
After the hearing, State Prosecutor Jay Sullivan declined to say whether Felicianoâs contact with the victim was âappropriate or inappropriate.â Kempe said, however, Feliciano does not appear to have broken the law because no court order was in effect barring Feliciano from having contact with the victim.
Feliciano remains free on $5,000 bail.