WOONSOCKET – After nearly two years, Donald Paterson went to Family Court in his wheelchair Friday to watch as the youth who put him there was sentenced for his crimes.
Jeremy Kerrigan, 18, who has never been identified publicly before, entered a plea of no contest and was sentenced to 20 years, with 10 to serve and the balance suspended, with probation. Kerrigan was charged with one count each of felony assault on a person over 60 and assault with a dangerous weapon for stabbing Paterson in the back in April 2010.
Paterson, who is now 76 years old, suffered a partially-severed spine in the attack. The injury left him paralyzed from the waist down, forever changing the life of the once-active senior, as well as that of his wife, Trudy.
Paterson got an opportunity to tell Judge Kathleen Voccola how the crime has changed his life.
“My wife and I have a life sentence, but he only has 10 years, that’s how I look at it,” Paterson later told The Call. “He said he was sorry for what he did and all this baloney, but being sorry isn’t enough.”
In fact, it’s possible the youth may end up with less prison time before his complicated sentence runs its course, according to state prosecutors. Many juvenile offenders accused of committing serious crimes usually face one of two paths when they enter the judicial system – they can either be tried as adults and dealt the same penalties, or they can be adjudicated as juveniles. In the latter case, their maximum sentence cannot surpass the time it takes for them to reach 18 years old, though they can be court-supervised for up to another year.
In Kerrigan’s case, the court chose a kind of middle ground known as “certification.” It allows the courts to treat him as a juvenile until he turns 19, at which point he must return to Family Court for a “modification hearing” to allow the judge to reevaluate the sentence
At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge will decide whether Kerrigan will be transferred to the ACI to serve out the balance of his prison time, or whether that portion of the sentence will be converted to additional probation.
“The modification hearing is currently scheduled for January of 2013, just before his 19th birthday,” said Emily Martineau, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Peter Kilmartin.
For now, Kerrigan is to continue serving his sentence at the Youth Training Center, where he’s been held since he was arrested.
It wasn’t Kerrigan’s age that allowed prosecutors to confirm his identify yesterday, but the fact that he was sentenced under the juvenile certification statute, Martineau said.
While the final sentence will probably always be too little for the Patersons, yesterday’s resolution was definitely too late.
“It took way too long,” said Trudy Paterson. “I think his lawyers just wanted to prolong it so they could say, ‘He’s already served two years. Take it off his sentence.’”
To this day, the Patersons do not know why Kerrigan stabbed Donald, a retired machinist and onetime Marine. Robbery, revenge, or even some violent gang initiation rite are all theories that have been officially ruled out.
What the Patersons do know is that the boy has been held in the state’s juvenile detention center since he was arrested and that hearings in the case have been repeatedly delayed. At some point, they say, his lawyers requested a psychiatric evaluation.
On the day of the attack, Paterson was walking home from a convenience store near his Diamond Hill Road apartment in broad daylight when someone surprised him from behind and, without uttering a word, thrust a knife in his back. There was no struggle, just a fierce jolt of pain as Paterson fell to the ground, crying for help. Paterson caught little more than a fleeting glimpse of his attacker as he ran off, and there were no other witnesses.
The police blanketed cars and front doors in the neighborhood with leaflets asking for help in identifying the mystery assailant before they arrested Kerrigan about two weeks later.
By then, Paterson was just getting an idea how the episode would transform his life. He used to go out a couple of times a week with his wife to shoot pool in various leagues. They dropped in regularly on their grandchildren, too, but all that was over.
After a long period of treatment at the Rehabilitation Hospital of Rhode Island, Paterson was released in the wheelchair that has become his constant companion. One of the first things the Patersons realized was that they would have to move out of the Four Seasons complex, where they lived, because Donald could no longer climb the stairs.
Now they live in Kennedy Manor, a publicly managed high rise for seniors and disabled people in the Flatlands. By comparison, it's a far more institutional setting, but it has an elevator.
Last year, a fundraiser spearheaded by the Italian Workingmen’s Club generated enough money to help the Patersons purchase a Plymouth Voyager van, specially equipped with a chair lift. Trudy manages to get Donald out of their apartment a couple of times a week, but the excursions are usually limited to doctor’s visits and other necessities, because getting her husband into the vehicle is still a chore for her.
“The lift isn’t designed to get him into the van,” she says. “It’s for the chair. I have to put him into the passenger seat myself. He sort of pivots his body in. It’s not easy. I’ve been trying to get somebody who can lower the level of the seat so it would be easier but so far I haven’t been able to find anyone who can do that.”
During the early phase of his recovery, Paterson suffered from a neurological and excruciatingly painful inflammation of his legs as a result of the trauma. He also suffered from life threatening blood clots in his lungs for a time, a byproduct of his newly sedentary lifestyle that was successfully treated with medication.
Trudy says her husband has had trouble adjusting to his new life, but she tries to keep him as active as possible. Once a week some of his buddies come over to play cards, and she brings him to Twin River occasionally.
Physically, Donald is out of immediate danger, but she says keeping him healthy and fit is a struggle.
“He’s not doing that well,” she says. “He’s getting weaker.”