By Alan J. Keays/ VTDigger
RUTLAND – Tami Carboni-Branchaud spent much of Thursday, July 26 inside a Rutland courtroom where she watched the man who admitted driving over and killing her husband get sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison.
When the proceeding was over late in the afternoon she went outside, started up a red 1996 International farm tractor, and drove away.
She was heading to back to Tinmouth, some 20 miles away, where she and her late husband Leo Branchaud operated a dairy farm until his death more than two years ago in the crash that Thomas H. Velde learned Thursday will send him to jail for almost two decades.
“I drove it here as a tribute to him,” Carboni-Branchaud said of her late husband and his favorite tractor.
As the chugging vehicle, which tops out at about 10 mph, rolled past the downtown courthouse, a loud cheer went up for Carboni-Branchaud at the wheel.
Roughly 50 of her friends, family and other supporters from Tinmouth and surrounding towns attended the Thursday hearing, as they have for every court date over the past two years.
The community has rallied around Carboni-Branchaud, starting right after the crash when they volunteered in shifts at the farm to ensure the cows continued to be milked to maintain their value before they were eventually sold off.
Heading out the back of courthouse Thursday in a sheriff’s cruiser was Velde, making his way to the Rutland jail, just a short drive from the courthouse.
Judge Cortland Corsones had moments earlier sentenced the 43-year-old man to 19 years in prison. With credit for time he has also served since his arrest two years ago, Velde would be eligible for release when he’s 60.
According to police, Branchaud was struck and killed as he walked in front of his home on Gulf Road in Tinmouth on April 22, 2016. Velde was driving the Chevy pickup that hit him.
Velde pleaded guilty in March to charges of leaving the scene with death resulting and gross negligent operation with death resulting in the hit-and-run crash that killed Branchaud.
Both charges carried habitual offender enhancements because of Velde’s lengthy criminal record, meaning each could be punishable by up to life imprisonment.
It’s a case in which Velde’s mother, Lisa Velde, has already been sentenced to jail time after admitting she tried to take the blame for her son’s action by initially telling police that she was the person who drove into and killed the 57-year-old farmer.
Thomas Velde’s trial had started in March, with the prosecution wrapping up its case when Velde agreed to plead guilty to the two felony offenses.
As part of an agreement, prosecutors were permitted to ask for a sentence of up to life in prison, while his attorney, William Cobb, was able to argue for any lesser sentence.
Rutland County State’s Attorney Rose Kennedy on Thursday asked the judge to impose a sentence of 25 years to life in prison. She talked of Velde’s long history of crime, his failure to take responsibility for his actions, and his attempts to shift blame onto others.
Cobb, Velde’s attorney, pushed for a sentence of four to 20 years for his client, telling the judge that Velde has long struggled with substance abuse that has fueled his mostly non-violent criminal actions.
The defense attorney also spoke of other cases in Vermont involving defendants charged in driving-related deaths in which sentences handed down came nowhere near approaching two decades in prison.
Judge Corsones, in delivering the 19-year-to-life sentence, took pains in listing off Velde’s past criminal record, which included six felony and 30 misdemeanor convictions.
The judge added that Velde, who has three drunk driving convictions and hasn’t had a driver’s license since 1996, continued to make the “choice” to get behind the wheel, including on the night of the crash that led to Branchaud’s death.
What made Velde’s case unlike others cited by Cobb, Corsones said, was the habitual offender enhancement.
“This is a critical difference,” Corsones said. “This case is in a very different posture.”
In addition to reciting the criminal record, the judge also spoke of the time Velde has spent behind bars awaiting resolution of this case, during which he picked up several “DRs,” or disciplinary reports, including two for fighting.
And in a recorded prison phone call, Corsones said, Velde is overheard asking his longtime girlfriend to get a drone and drop a 9mm handgun into the prison yard for him.
Police never did find a gun, but Velde admitting to prison officials that he made the request, Corsones added, earning himself a stint in solitary confinement.
That showed Velde continued to believe that the rules don’t apply to him, even behind bars, the judge said. Corsones called Velde’s actions on the night of the crash “egregious,” and the result of those actions “horrific.”
Cobb, in arguing earlier for a lighter sentence, said that his client did stop his vehicle after striking Branchaud, and determined that the man was already dead.
Velde then drove the short distance to his mother’s house, Cobb said, where she called 911 to report the crash and initially told authorities she was the driver who struck Branchaud.
“Mr. Velde, had he wanted to be a true scoundrel, he would have just kept going,” Cobb said. “He did stop and check on Mr. Branchaud … he did try to get help.”
The defense attorney added that the dual-wheeled, one-ton pickup truck Velde was driving had failing rear brakes, and it’s still unclear why Branchaud was in the road.
“We can’t really say for sure why Mr. Branchaud was struck in the road when he was,” Cobb said. “Maybe he was there for some time, maybe he wasn’t, it’s all a little bit gray about what happened.”
Velde had told police that he saw Branchaud jump out in front of him from the right, while a security camera from the Branchaud property showed him coming from the left.
In his interview with police, Velde repeatedly termed the crash an “accident,” saying as soon as he saw Branchaud in the road he slammed on the brakes, all the way to the floor.
He also told police he was coming home from playing cards with friends and had only one beer at most, “if I even had one.”
Nothing in his client’s criminal record shows he has a “depraved heart,” or doesn’t care about people, Cobb said, which is often the case for someone receiving a prison sentence of two decades.
That type of sentence, he contended, is reserved for the worst of the worst, the murderers, kidnappers and rapists.
The defense attorney said that Velde may be “less than ambitious,” and “at times a troublemaker,” but that didn’t warrant taking him out of society for the rest of his life.
A sentence of four to 20 years would allow the state Department of Corrections to continue to supervise him following his release from prison until the maximum term is reached, Cobb said. The DOC could set conditions for release, including that he not drive, he added.
“Oh yeah, that worked,” a woman shouted out from the crowd before the judge admonished everyone in the courtroom that the next such outburst would result in that person’s removal.
Kennedy, the prosecutor, said that Velde had “earned” every one of the 25 years in prison she was asking a judge to impose.
She said only hours before the fatal crash a man had confronted Velde about his reckless driving around town, and told him to slow down and be more careful.
Velde’s reaction, Kennedy said, was to chuckle and say he was probably going even faster than the man reported. She also noted that Velde was well aware that the rear brakes weren’t working.
At the time of the crash, she said, Velde could have gone to Branchaud’s residence or barn and tried to call police and emergency personnel to the scene immediately.
Instead, the prosecutor said, he drove to his mother’s place, had her dial 911 and say she was driver.
“It was just accepted they would all stick to the plan,” Kennedy said.
That scheme unraveled a few days later when a security camera on the Branchaud property showed Velde had been driving, not his mother.
Kennedy also told the judge that in a recorded prison phone call Velde is heard in expletive-laden language blaming Branchaud for his own death, questioning why he was out in the road, even suggesting the farmer wanted to cause the crash to collect on insurance.
Any remorse Velde now expresses, the prosecutor said, is out of “desperation.”
Kennedy said the decision to ask for the 25-year prison sentence did not come easily.
“Leo Branchaud did not jump out in the road, this was not an accident,” she said. “The defendant killed Leo Branchaud.”
Velde, wearing a white T-shirt and dark sweatpants, did address the judge, saying in a soft voice that he was sorry for his actions “from the bottom of my heart.”
He turned to the Branchaud family and their supporters in the courtroom and added, “I am sorry and I hope that someday you will forgive me.”Moments earlier, Carboni-Branchaud delivered her victim impact statement. She described Velde as a “coward” who sought to escape accountability. “How could he get away with this crime was all he could think about,” she said.
Photo by Alan J. Keays
Widow of farmer Leo Branchard arrived at the courthouse in her husband’s tractor.