BARRE — After years of litigation, including a trip to the Vermont Supreme Court and multiple judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys assigned to the case, Ernest Phillips has been sentenced for exposing himself to teenagers.
Phillips, 31, of Essex Junction, was sentenced Monday in Washington County criminal court in Barre to one to two years to serve, all suspended except for 120 days, on two misdemeanor convictions of prohibited acts. Half of those days will be spent at Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury, and Phillips will serve the other 60 days on work crew. Phillips was also placed on probation for eight years.
He pleaded guilty to the crimes in November 2017 after he was initially charged in April 2016.
Phillips had been charged with felony counts of sexual assault, lewd and lascivious conduct and sexual exploitation of a minor but the charges were either dismissed or amended, per the plea agreement.
One of the victims told police she and Phillips began a sexual relationship when she was 17 years old that continued past her 18th birthday, according to court records. The other victim told police she began a sexual relationship with Phillips when she was 15 years old that continued until she was 16, according to court records.
After Phillips pleaded guilty, Judge Howard E. VanBenthuysen declined to accept the deal, saying victims needed to have more input in the case. Victims reported they weren’t included in the plea agreement negotiations, had no idea what Phillips was going to receive for a sentence and — once they learned of the sentence late in the process — said they wanted to see Phillips punished more harshly.
Scott Williams, the Washington County state’s attorney at the time who entered into the agreement, took heat from the victims for the agreement. Williams said at the time because there were people involved in the case that had changed their stories over time, there was a substantial risk that a jury could find Phillips not guilty.
Phillips had initially agreed to a three-year deferred sentence that carried no jail time and would have put him on probation for three years.
Phillips had been represented by attorney Jessica Burke. Burke appealed the judge’s decision to reject the plea agreement to the state Supreme Court. She argued Judge VanBenthuysen had agreed to the deal because he had signed the plea agreement and the deferred sentence and probation order. The state’s highest court disagreed and sent the case back to Washington County criminal court so that a judge can decide whether to accept the plea agreement. Phillips decided to keep his guilty pleas and go for a contested sentencing, where the state and defense would make their cases and a judge would decide what sentence Phillips would get.
Burke withdrew from the case in August and Colin Seaman represented Phillips at Monday’s sentencing hearing.
Though he didn’t enter into the initial agreement, current Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault wanted Phillips sentenced to six months in jail. Seaman argued for a 60-day work crew sentence.
Phillips’ friends and family testified Monday, saying Phillips is a good person who has helped them and others. The youngest victim in the case also spoke at the hearing, saying she now has depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder because of what Phillips did to her. She spoke through tears as she described how Phillips took advantage of her and others.
Phillips apologized through tears of his own for what the victims went through.
“I had no reason doing what I did,” he said.
Before handing down the sentence, Judge Mary L. Morrissey said while it sounded like Phillips was someone who can help and support people, he appeared to be minimizing his role in the crime. After Phillips admitted to exposing himself to the victims in a sexual nature, Morrissey said Phillips took part in a psycho-sexual evaluation where he said he exposed himself to the older victim by getting out of the shower and the younger victim during a photo shoot. She also noted Phillips had applied to become a private investigator in 2017, while the case was still pending, and told the state while trying to get a license that the sexual assault case had been dropped.
“Mr. Phillips abused his position of trust. He acted in a supervisory role with both (victims). They were in his care. They were trusted in his care during that time and he abused that trust,” she said.