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Close to 40 people filled the small courtroom for Nick's sentencing. His parents and older sister sat in the front row, separated from Laura and her parents by one other observer.
Some of Laura's relatives who had traveled two hours that morning sat in the second row, along with four or five young men who were friends of Nick's. A half-dozen teary-eyed young women were there on Nick's behalf, prepared to testify, if the judge would let them. They planned to say they had seen Laura at school functions and playing soccer.
With her back to the courtroom and prosecutor Denise Choquette by her side, Laura faced Judge Clifton.
She said she had chosen excerpts from her journal to speak for her, and read them to the court.
"Everything in my mind is jumbled," she read. "I'm walking around this cold, empty place with a blindfold on looking for a needle in a haystack. It's like I'm a walking dead girl. I think of the times I loved myself, better yet, liked myself."
Choquette requested a 25-year sentence, with 15 years to serve.
"This is a young girl who at 15 was sexually assaulted by someone she considered to be her friend, someone she trusted," Choquette said. "She went to his house and was raped. There's no other word for it, your honor."
Nick's lawyer, former Burrillville town solicitor Oleg Nikolyszyn, asked the judge to impose a long sentence of community service for an "event" that he said was "without brutality, without violence, without drugs."
Just because the jury believed Laura, that didn't make the verdict "sacred," Nikolyszyn said.
Clifton rejected several attempts by Nikolyszyn to present evidence or witnesses that the lawyer said would show Laura had not become "a shell" of her former self. At one point, prosecutor Choquette objected to the lawyer's comments as "a character assassination."
Nikolyszyn then asserted that Burrillville students who know both Nick and Laura well are privy to knowledge the court does not have.
"Were any of them present on Dec. 5, 2001, in the basement of Nicholas Plante?" Clifton said. "So what difference does it make if the popularity contest at Burrillville High School says one person wins out?"
* * * * * *
Nick stood to address the court.
"I can never admit to something I didn't do," he said. "And although the jury found me guilty, I still say I did not do this, although I will accept any punishment that you do decide to give me."
He said he was sorry his friends and family "had to go through this."
"Whatever I have to do to get through this, I will," he said. "I will go on with my life."
Audible sobs came from his friends, who sat sniffling and catching their breath.
The judge spoke of a community "splintered" over whether a crime had been committed.
"Undoubtedly, this is the worst nightmare for the parents of Laura . . . and Nicholas Plante," Clifton said.
He told Nick he hoped the sentence would send a message "not only to you but to the Nicholas Plantes of the world" that sexual assault will not be tolerated.
"You continue to maintain that the act was a consensual act," he said. ". . . I cannot glean any true expression of remorse . . .
"You said: 'I didn't do anything wrong.' 'I feel bad about the situation we put everybody in.' 'I've never had trouble finding girls who like me.' "
Clifton sentenced Nick to 10 years for each of the three counts of first-degree sexual assault, with six years suspended on each, and five years on the one count of second-degree sexual assault, with three years suspended, all to be served concurrently.
As his friends sobbed and wiped their tear-streaked faces, the handcuffs closed around Nick's wrists. He turned and mouthed the words "I love you" to his family.
Then he was taken to the Adult Correctional Institutions to serve four years.
* * * * * *
Laura's mother had dreamed of the handcuffs. Her father's symbol of justice was a moment he wanted to witness but knew he couldn't. He had written long ago to inform his supervisors that he could not and did not want to have any contact with Nick at the ACI.
He would have loved to be there when the handcuffs came off and the door to the prison cell slammed behind Nick.
"It's a very eerie sound," he says. "It's steel slamming against steel. It's a very distinctive sound, and it gives a whole reality to it. There's no more denial now."
When children are victims of violence, journalists have a responsibility to report the truth with compassion and sensitivity.
A 40-page guide to help journalists, photojournalists and editors report on violence while protecting both victims and themselves. Click here for a Ukrainian translation.
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