BENNINGTON — The court affirmed on Tuesday the 12-years-to-life sentence of a former Bennington teacher convicted of sexually assaulting an underage student. The ruling came shortly after the defendant apologized for the first time in court for his crimes.
Morris David Nelson was convicted at trial of repeated aggravated sexual assault and sexual assault of a victim under 18 entrusted to his care. Authorities said he assaulted a 17-year-old girl during a period between 2015 and 2016, including a time when he was a math teacher at the Vermont School for Girls.
He was sentenced by Superior Judge William Cohen to serve 12 years to life in prison in 2018, based on the offense of repeated aggravated sexual assault.
Nelson, 59, asked the Bennington Superior Court last year to consider a sentence reduction on the crime. This came after the Vermont Supreme Court threw out his conviction for a third charge of sexual exploitation of a minor, based on double jeopardy issues, but affirmed his other convictions and sentence.
His argument for a reduced sentence included that evidence he presented at sentencing actually supported less prison time than the 10-year mandatory minimum. The evidence, he said, encompassed testimony of his community service and minimal criminal history, which the prosecution didn’t challenge.
Defense attorney Lamar Enzor said the court enhanced Nelson’s sentence to 12 years after improperly considering his conviction on the assault by an entrusted person, which carries its own punishment. The attorney also said the prosecution didn’t offer aggravating evidence to justify the court’s going above the mandatory minimum.
The prosecutor opposed the sentence reduction request, saying Tuesday that the court’s consideration of Nelson’s position of trust over the girl was a “perfectly reasonable and acceptable rationale.” Cohen, now a justice at the Vermont Supreme Court, presided over the remote hearing.
The prosecutor, Bennington County Deputy State’s Attorney Alex Burke, also said that during Nelson’s sentencing, he unequivocally said he did not take responsibility for the crimes in which the jury convicted him.
When given a chance to speak, Nelson expressed remorse. “I apologize for everything’s that happened,” he said. “I take responsibility for every inappropriate, immoral or unlawful thing that has ever happened.”
Cohen thanked Nelson for his statement, then affirmed his previous sentencing decision. He cited the girl’s entrustment to Nelson by the state of New Hampshire, the need for punishment and rehabilitation, the interest of public safety and the dictates of the law.
Burke, when asked after the hearing, said Tuesday was the first time that the prosecution had heard Nelson accept any sort of responsibility for his crimes.
Nelson, who goes by his middle name, is detained at a state-contracted federal facility in Mississippi.
According to court records, he was a math teacher at the Vermont School for Girls from January 2013 to December 2014 and again from March to November 2015.
Authorities have said he developed a friendship with the victim, who’d attended the private school for youth, also called the Bennington School for Girls.
Nelson also provided respite care for her; the teen told authorities she felt she had no other place to go. The girl, who stayed at Nelson’s home during the holidays, said she was assaulted repeatedly.