Christmas pleads guilty - Shaftsbury man admits to second-degree murder, sex charges
BENNINGTON -- A Shaftsbury man pleaded guilty Friday to shooting his former brother-in-law to death and to molesting children -- charges that would likely result in him serving 30 years to life in prison.
More than a dozen police officers filled Bennington District Court as Michael Christmas, 41, pleaded guilty to second degree murder and three counts of aggravated sexual assault on victims under 10 years of age. Christmas entered his guilty pleas while wearing a bullet proof vest and surrounded by police.
When Christmas was arraigned in 2007, a melee broke out in the court room between members of his family and relatives of Ronald Wilkins, the man Christmas shot. Many of the victims' friends and family were at the hearing on Friday, but there were no disruptions.
"We cannot and will not tolerate that here," Judge David Suntag said at the start of the change of plea hearing. "If there is any disruption, we will remove you, and if there is any resistance, further action will be taken."
Christmas was initially charged with first degree murder, three counts of aggravated sexual assault, two counts of repeated aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault without consent, attempted sexual assault on a minor under the age of 16, and domestic assault. As part of the plea agreement, the murder charge was reduced and the other charges, aside from the aggravated sexual assaults on three different victims under the age of 10, were dropped.
Suntag said that a sentencing hearing will be held at a later date and a pre-sentencing investigation will be conducted. He said that if the court then finds the sentence acceptable, Christmas will do the time he agreed to.
State's Attorney Erica Marthage said she initially wanted 35 years on the minimum but during negotiations said that she wouldn't settle for anything less that 30. Marthage said she wouldn't have gone that low had she not spoken with the family of the victims who had been involved in the court process for two years.
Marthage said the bottom line is that no sentence would undo the damage caused by Christmas, and that a trial would not necessarily guarantee that he would take responsibility if convicted by a jury. She said that once his 30 years are up, he will be in his early 70s and the Department of Corrections doesn't have to let him out.
Complicating matters is the fact that both the prosecution and the defense had filed motions to severthesex charges from the murder charge. In July, the Vermont SupremeCourt uphelda2008 decision by BenningtonDistrict CourtJudge Katherine Hayes, barring Christmas' confession of the murder to police. Hayes said that after Christmas said he did not want to talk, he was engaged in idle banter by police interrogators, and later confessed to the murder. He also gave information leading to the sex charges. Hayes ruled that the banter amounted to interrogation.
The motion to sever the charges came from Christmas' defense attorneys, Public Defender Frederick Bragdon and Kevin Griffin, an attorney from White RiverJunction. Bragdonargued thatthesex chargeswere "fruit from the poisonedtree" andwerenot admissible.
Marthage said that had the case gone to trial, there would be two trials, each involving child witnesses. Because the charges would carry life sentences, there would be an automatic appeal process, and if there were any problems with the first set of trials, there would be a possibility of having to do them over again using child witnesses.
Marthage said that, because this is a plea agreement, there will be no automatic appeal. She said that the sentencing hearing will likely be held in a little over a month.
According to an affidavit, on Aug. 25, 2007, at 6:03 p.m., police were called to a home on Cleveland Avenue in Shaftsbury for a reported shooting. Police said the children of Wilkins said that Christmas had shot their father.
According to the affidavit, Christmas said he rode on a bicycle to the home of Ken Harrington, where Wilkins was sitting on a porch swing, and shot him a number of times with a 9 mm pistol. Christmas said he shot Wilkins because he felt that his life was soon to be turned upside down by the victims of his molestation coming forward and had decided to "kill the person who was his biggest pain."
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