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Meaningful embrace in courtroom

Daily Hampshire Gazette - 2/22/2017

A hug between a mother and son in a Northampton courtroom was the latest step in healing a difficult case with a heavy dose of compassionate justice. Appropriately, the embrace between Joann Holmes and her son Zachary came on Valentine’s Day.

It was the first physical contact between the 54-year-old mother and her 22-year-old autistic son since he repeatedly stabbed her in their Belchertown home on Sept. 3, 2015. During the succeeding 17 months, Joann stood by her son after his arrest, eight months in jail, numerous court proceedings, guilty plea and release to a supervised home in the community where he receives treatment. But they had never been allowed to touch – until last week.

A judge accepted Zachary’s guilty plea in July to two assault charges, sentenced him to five years of probation and six months of house arrest, and agreed that he could return in six months to formally request supervised visits with his mother. That day came Feb. 14 when Hampshire Superior Court Judge Mark Mason approved the visits.

Joann then walked to the defense table where she stretched out her arms to her son. They embraced for a minute. “It’s been so long,” he said. “I love you,” she replied.

Later they exchanged Valentine’s gifts – she giving him a heart-shaped box of chocolates, he giving her a handmade card which read: MOM, IT’S ABOUT TIME I WISHED YOU A HAPPY VALENTIMES DAY!!! XOXXOOXXXOX plus infinity!”

“Hey, it’s not perfect,” Zachary told Joann. “But it’s meaningful.”

That’s an apt description of how this case has been handled by the criminal justice system.

Belchertown Police described a horrific scene when they arrived at the Holmes’ home the night of the attack, with Joann standing outside covered in her own blood after her face, stomach, back, wrists and neck were slashed. Two knives used by Zachary in the stabbing were on the bloodied kitchen floor inside. The incident began after the family dog urinated on the floor.

Zachary originally was charged with attempted murder and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and held without bail in the Hampshire County Jail, facing 12 ½ years in state prison.

Though Joann maintained she never wanted charges brought against her son, Assistant Northwestern District Attorney Jennifer Suhl said her office had to do what it believes was “in the best interests of not just the victim, but also the broader public safety.”

As the case made its way through Hampshire Superior Court, Suhl and Zachary’s court-appointed lawyer Alfred Chamberland agreed that jail was not the right place for an autistic man who because of developmental delays has the mind of a middle-schooler.

“I want to say the commonwealth has no pleasure in keeping Zachary Holmes in the House of Corrections,” Suhl said in a court a year ago, suggesting the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital, run by the state Department of Mental Health, as an alternative.

During that court hearing in February 2016, Chamberland argued that Zachary instead needed treatment by the state Department of Developmental Services, because of his disability. “The system is broke, and Zachary Holmes has fallen through the cracks of the broken system,” Chamberland said. “He doesn’t have a mental disorder. He has a developmental disorder. He’s on the autism spectrum.”

In June, Superior Court Judge John Ferrara agreed to release Zachary to a supervised apartment in Amherst to receive treatment from the Department of Developmental Services. In December, Zachary moved to a group home in Orange where he continues to receive treatment with other residents.

Still, until a week ago, Zachary was not permitted within 100 yards of his mother, and was allowed to communicate with her only by telephone. During the Feb. 14 hearing, Chamberland argued that Zachary’s continued treatment would benefit from leaving his assisted-care residence to visit with his mother.

Suhl agreed. “The goal, ultimately, is to step down restrictions,” she said. “I do feel comfortable (DDS officials) are going to appropriately supervise and have safety as a priority for these visits.”

Last June, Chamberland talked about the journey to the end of any rainbow being long but worthwhile because usually “there will be a reward at the end of the rainbow which is what we’re hoping.”

That Valentine’s Day hug in court is not the end of the rainbow for the Holmes family, but it is a meaningful waypoint on a journey that has been guided by compassionate lawyers and judges.


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