By PHILLIP BANTZ
The Keene Sentinel: June 10, 2009
A Cheshire County Superior Court judge decided last year that a West Swanzey man who caused a deadly crash deserved more time in prison than prosecutors recommended.
But the same judge recently agreed that Henri E. Pletzner 3rd, 36, should be released from prison and placed on home confinement after serving a little more than a year of his 21/2-year minimum sentence on a negligent homicide conviction.
Judge Brian T. Tucker’s decision has outraged the family of Kathleen S. Barrett, who was killed in January 2007 when a work van Pletzner was driving crossed the center line on Route 10 in Swanzey and collided with her car.
“I cannot understand for the life of me how this judge could have added time to the sentence and then turn around and say he wants to let him out of prison early,” said Barrett’s father, Richard N. Schnell of Nashua.
In his endorsement of Pletzner’s application for home confinement, Tucker wrote that he believed “home confinement at this stage would not be inconsistent with the purposes of sentencing, including those of deterrence and punishment, and may aid in the defendant’s rehabilitation.”
A month before Tucker issued the go-ahead for Pletzner’s early release, Assistant Cheshire County Attorney Melissa A. Pierce filed an argument with the court urging the judge to reject the home confinement application.
“The defendant has barely served a full year of his sentence. Justice cannot allow someone who has taken the life of another to be released from incarceration prior to serving his minimum,” she wrote.
“To do otherwise diminishes all the Court seeks to achieve in sentencing and violates the promise that the state of New Hampshire makes to victims and their families.”
N.H. Commissioner of Corrections William L. Wrenn will have final say over whether Pletzner is released from prison.
Pletzner’s home confinement plan must receive approval from the state Department of Corrections Probation and Parole Office before it reaches Wrenn’s desk.
Probation Officer Scott Langevin, who is assigned to Pletzner’s case, said he decides only whether Pletzner has an adequate residence waiting for him if he is released from prison.
The residence must offer a “stable environment” and have a phone and electrical system that can support monitoring equipment, such as an ankle bracelet, Reynolds said.
“We’re not the people who make the decision about if he gets out the door or not,” he said.
When Tucker sentenced Pletzner in March 2008 to 21/2 to seven years in prison, prosecutors were asking for a minimum sentence of two years as part of a plea negotiation.
Tucker said he tacked six months onto the minimum sentence because Pletzner’s driving record was riddled with traffic violations and he lied to a state police trooper investigating the crash that killed Barrett.
Pletzner told the trooper he had one beer the night before the crash, but multiple people who were familiar with Pletzner came forward and said he had been drinking until at least 3 a.m. the day of the crash, which unfolded at about 7:40 a.m., according to Assistant Cheshire County Attorney D. Chris McLaughlin.
And a motorist who witnessed the crash said he saw the work van Pletzner was driving cross the yellow line and head toward Barrett’s car in the oncoming lane of traffic, McLaughlin said during the sentencing hearing.
Pletzner, who suffered minor injuries in the collision, was convicted in May 1997 for driving while intoxicated, transporting drugs and having an open alcohol container in his vehicle. He was convicted three months later of driving with a suspended license.
In April 2006, Pletzner was cited for illegally crossing the center line of a road.
Less than a year later, he was involved in the crash that made Jeffrey L. Barrett of Winchester a widower.
“We’ll never be the same because of what he did. I lost my wife, my best friend,” Barrett said.
The couple had known each other since middle school and were high school sweethearts. They had five children together. One of their four sons died when he was 18, a year before his mother was killed.
Barrett said he and his surviving children feel like they’re being victimized all over again as Pletzner’s request for early release inches closer to becoming a reality.
Barrett plans to appear at Pletzner’s final hearing for early release from prison and fight to keep the man who caused his wife’s death behind bars. Schnell will also be there, along with many other members of the Barrett family.
“A 21/2-year sentence at the beginning didn’t even seem like enough. We were assured that he would have to serve at least the minimum,” Barrett said. “For him to be able to go home to his family and their support is just unfathomable.”