Inaugural Veterans Court graduation draws crowd

‘It saved my life,’ a graduate of the new diversionary program said

By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times

State Supreme Court Justice Seamus P. McCaffery, (left) who served in the Marines and Air Force, and lawyer James E. McErlane, a Navy veteran, chat with officials after the program.

The Vietnam veteran warned the audience in advance that he wasn’t “an elegant speaker,” an understandable but unwarranted response to those who preceded him at the podium: a passel of politicians and an always-ebullient state Supreme Court justice.

But it was Robert Sutton, a Coatesville resident wounded in Vietnam in 1971, who earned the only standing ovation from a packed courtroom during the first graduation ceremony today for the Chester County Veterans Court.

“Believe it or not, it was an honor being on probation  … It saved my life,” he said, adding: “I hope to never see you again.”

Probation officer Donna Brown said Sutton was admitted into the program in July 2011 after an arrest for drug possession. Like other diversionary, prison-alternative programs, Veterans Court – a partnership with Chester County Court, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Coatesville Medical Center –  focuses on individualized treatment to reduce recidivism and avoid incarceration.

Sutton was one of two graduates – and the only one able to attend the hourlong program, which drew more than 100 spectators, including local, state and federal  officials and nearly 50 veterans.

Underscoring the need for such a program, Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan recited a litany of accomplishments achieved by two relatives with military backgrounds. A third offered a stark contrast: “ Uncle Frank.

Chester County Judge Thomas G. Gavin (right) credits Jennifer Lopez, a deputy chief of adult probation, with being the “heart and soul” of the county’s diversionary programs.

”Hogan said he and his family “lived in fear every day” that Coatesville Police would call to report that his relative had stopped taking his medication and ran afoul of the law. He said his uncle died young and “found peace in death he never found in life,” a tragic example of someone who would have benefitted from the mentoring and treatment of Veterans Court.

State Supreme Court Justice Seamus P. McCaffery , the keynote speaker, praised the efforts of Chester County officials that led to the program, which is overseen by Judges Thomas G. Gavin and Howard F. Riley Jr., both veterans of the court system as well as military service.

Gavin singled out Jennifer Lopez, deputy chief of adult probation, as “the heart and soul of our diversionary programs,” as well as the person who organized today’s ceremony.

The program,  started in March 2010 under former District Attorney Joseph W. Carroll, has screened more than 600 veterans and accepted 10 into the program, which requires intensive counseling and treatment programs, according to county officials. To date, six are active participants and two have graduated.

McCaffery, a  Philadelphia police officer for 20 years who also had a 40-year combined military career in the Marines and Air Force, said he has been working with state and federal officials to get funding for Veterans Courts, which he eventually wants to see in all of the state’s 67 counties. So

Retired Staff Sgt. Shawn D. Carter leads the flag procession for the Chester County Veterans Court’s first graduation ceremony.

far, 16 counties have programs, he said.

Noting the importance of serving the needs of those who sacrificed so much for American liberty, especially those with  “invisible wounds,” McCaffery said that his own firefights all occurred on the streets of Philadelphia.

“This young man is a real warrior,” McCaffery said, pointing to retired Staff Sgt. Shawn D. Carter of West Chester, a recipient of the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and numerous other awards who led the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance.

After the ceremony, Carter applauded the Veterans Court program and acknowledged that he had his own brushes with the law as a youth. In fact, he recalled interacting decades ago with both Riley and Gavin.

Carter said the judges and former West Goshen Police Officer Mike O’Brien, who now works for the FBI, helped turn his life around.

“I couldn’t have accomplished what I did without their help,” he said.



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