A South Burlington businessman, who admitted to lewd conduct on a vulnerable elderly woman while on her deathbed at Burlington Health and Rehab last year, has been allowed to withdraw his guilty plea and plans to move forward with a trial in court.
Stephen J. Edwards, the longtime owner of Vermont Coins and Jewelry in the Blue Mall on Dorset Street, also has replaced his defense lawyer Harley G. Brown III of Richmond. Stowe lawyer Chandler Matson has been hired by Edwards to take over his defense.
Edwards, 71, of Nicklaus Circle now maintains he felt pressured during a change of plea hearing on Feb. 28 into conceding one of the elements of the sex crime, court papers note.
Edwards specifically denies his actions “were done with the intent of arousing, appealing to, or gratifying to the sexual desires of himself” or the elderly woman, according to the motion to withdraw his plea.
He was due for sentencing this week, but Vermont Superior Court Judge Kevin Griffin agreed recently to put the case back on the path to a jury trial.
Deputy State’s Attorney Dana M. DiSano reported the prosecution has retained all the evidence in the case. She said the state would not be prejudiced if Edwards was allowed to withdraw his guilty plea. The previous not guilty plea by Edwards was restored.
Matson, the new defense lawyer, said he also wants to explore the issue of possible insanity at the time of the offense, court records show.
The lewd conduct charge stems from Edwards visiting the woman, who was in her 90s, at the Pearl Street facility. She died a few days later.
Edwards was interrupted by a staff member walking into the room, police said.
He was visiting the woman who was in hospice care and unable to communicate, Burlington Officer Kyle Yeh said in a sworn affidavit.
A nurse walked in to provide morphine and found a man committing a lewd act on the elderly woman, who was in bed, Yeh said. The nurse ordered Edwards to leave the room, court records show.
DiSano has said the prosecution planned to seek a 2-to-5 year prison sentence. Brown was planning to ask for less prison time in a contested sentencing hearing that was expected to take 90 minutes.
Edwards was free to withdraw from the plea agreement if the judge anted to impose more than 2-to-5 years, court records show.
Edwards also would have to register as a sex offender with the State of Vermont and could be fined up to $10,000.
Now the case is almost back to the beginning, although Judge Griffin has told lawyers he wants this case on the fast track to a trial. The judge wants the lawyers to be ready for a trial in early September. Edwards was arraigned about 10 months ago.
Griffin told the defense to provide its witness to the prosecution by July 5. Depositions of any witnesses must be completed by Aug. 5 with any motions to dismiss or suppress evidence filed a week later, the judge ruled.
Edwards moved his coin and jewelry business to South Burlington several years ago after having his shop on U.S. 7 in Shelburne next to Bay Plaza. The defendant, also known as John Edwards, lived for many years on Mount Philo Road in Charlotte.
It is the second legal jam that Edwards has found himself in recent months.
Edwards received a suspended 3-to-6 month prison sentence in February after pleading guilty to failing to keep proper anti-theft records for precious metals and other treasures received at his store.
Griffin also placed Edwards on probation for two years and assessed him $147 in fees and surcharges.
Vermont State Police arrested Edwards and a few other coin dealers in Chittenden and Washington counties last summer as part of an elaborate investigation into burglars and thieves selling jewelry, coins and other items they stole from homes and businesses, court records show.
They were prosecuted under a new Vermont law to discourage drug addicts from stealing valuables and selling them to feed their habits, state police said.