A Man of Conviction: The many trials of Ben Chater, a disabled Chittenden County prosecutor
As teachers face the heavy pressure of the Common Core State (sic) Standards, they should remember the punch line to this teacher's letter. . . about what a nine-year-old needs. . . . Then read the inspiring story of that nine-year-old who is now a 29-year-old lawyer.
Letter to Editor by Roger Crowley:
I enjoyed reading Ken Picard's article about Ben Chater ["A Man of Conviction," November 7]. I was Ben’s third- and fourth-grade teacher in Montpelier. He was raising the bar and impacting the community as much as a kid as he is doing as an adult. He and his family are responsible for the school system installing ramps and elevators for equal access for all as he moved through the school system. Those battles over facilities and money were not easy, but they were successful. His need to be included in everything made challenges for me that eventually changed the way I taught and made me a better teacher. He opened my eyes to every kid's needs -- not just his. I have a ton of stories about how Ben impacted our classroom, but one of the most profound was during a trip to Boston to meet with software developers who were working on a speech synthesizer that Ben could use with his writing. A team of suits was behind us, talking about the program, while Ben used his head stick to type out a story on the computer. The suits kept repeating, "What Ben needs is..." Finally, Ben turned around and this 9-year-old kid, in his labored speech, said, "Want to know what Ben needs? Ask Ben!" Ben's an amazing person, and anyone who spends time with him soon realizes just how special he really is.
By Ken Picard
Drunk drivers are coming at Ben Chater fast and furiously on a recent Thursday morning, and it's not even 9 a.m. Several have had their driver’s licenses suspended already; one got caught with a stash of weed in his glove compartment. A couple of domestic abusers are also waiting in the wings, accused of violating their relief-from-abuse orders.
Thursday is arraignment day in courtroom 2B of the Edward J. Costello Courthouse in downtown Burlington. Not all of them are this hectic for Chater, a Chittenden County deputy state’s attorney. Some days, he has only five or six arraignments. Today he's got 33.
But Chater is keeping his cool, notwithstanding the trickle of sweat on his brow. His eyes rapidly scan the documents that his personal assistant, Andy Dolan, holds up for him to read. Occasionally, Chater asks him to jot down a note or two in the file and then flip to the next one.
Chater has cerebral palsy. His physical impairments make it impossible for him to lift the sheets of paper containing the criminal charges he’s prosecuting. But State's Attorney T.J. Donovan, who hired Chater in February, gives him no special treatment, and Chater asks for none. At any given time, he has 150 to 200 active cases -- not including the ones, like today's, that he covers for his fellow deputies. Like every prosecutor in Vermont's busiest criminal division, Chater is expected to pull his own weight.
Shortly after 10 a.m., Judge Robert Mello asks Chater if he’s ready for the pro se defendants — those who have chosen to represent themselves rather than paying for a private attorney or having a public defender appointed to them.
Chater, who sits in a motorized wheelchair with his head cocked, eyes turned upward and right arm extended horizontally, responds, "Yes, your honor." Even those three words seem to require enormous physical effort.
The judge calls the next defendant, a thirtysomething man arrested in Burlington for driving under the influence of alcohol with a suspended license. Chater drops his contorted left hand into a stirrup that, like a joystick, controls his wheelchair. With his wrist bent downward at a 90-degree angle and his fingers splayed like an eagle's claw, he steers himself around to face the judge.
"Your honor, the defendant has quite an extensive motor vehicle record," Chater says in halting, slurred speech, his body twitching. "We have no reason to believe he will get his license back."
Upon hearing Chater's voice, the previously sedate spectators in the gallery suddenly perk up. Two young women in the back of the courtroom glance at each other but say nothing.
Their reaction is understandable. At first, Chater's voice can be difficult to understand, like a thick foreign accent. It can take a while to attune one's ear to its tone and modulation. But after a couple of minutes of listening to Chater address the court, an observer finds it obvious he is well versed in the law and the facts of the case.
Ultimately, the defendant pleads guilty to the DUI charge, agrees to pay a $300 fine and is sent on his way -- but not before Judge Mello issues him a stern warning not to drive again, drunk or sober, or he'll find himself behind bars. Another case closed.
While the judge takes a short recess, Chater rotates his wheelchair toward the spectators and flashes a smile to this reporter. Dressed in a black sports jacket, gray slacks and cornflower-blue tie, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Chater looks sharp, confident and professional.
No one can deny the Montpelier native, now 29, has achieved a lot: a dual degree in English and linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley; a law degree from the University of Texas at Austin; admission to the bar in both Vermont and Texas; and a Capitol Hill internship with the Senate Judiciary Committee. That last earned him glowing praise in the Congressional Record from Sen. Patrick Leahy, who called Chater’s accomplishments “nothing short of awe inspiring.”
Donovan, his boss, agrees. “By every measure, the guy is a star.”
“I never would have thought I’d be here,” Chater says, just before the judge returns to the courtroom. “I guess you never know what life is going to bring you.”
Chater’s presence in Chittenden District Court has raised the bar for what people with disabilities can hope to accomplish in Vermont. It has also forced the state’s attorney’s office, as well as judges, public defenders, private attorneys and other court personnel, to ask difficult and sometimes uncomfortable questions about how far they’re willing to go to accommodate someone with Chater’s level of impairment.
He’s now facing a new challenge: Dolan, who has been his personal assistant since Chater was in law school, is moving on, and Chater needs a replacement at the prosecutor’s table. Earlier this year, Donovan requested state funding under the Americans With Disabilities Act’s “reasonable accommodation” provision to help pay for the assistance. Currently, Chater pays Dolan out of his own pocket.
The Vermont Department of Human Resources denied that request — and won’t comment on what it considers a confidential personnel matter. John Berard, in the department’s labor relations division, could say only that the decision is just a “recommendation,” and if the Department of State’s Attorneys wants to fund the position, it’s free to do so.
Ed Paquin, executive director of the advocacy group Disability Rights Vermont, also can’t comment directly on the decision but says he’s disappointed by it.
“Ben is an individual who has a lot of potential, a lot of spirit and a lot of intelligence,” says Paquin, who also uses a wheelchair. “If some lack of creative thinking makes it unfeasible for him to do the kind of good work he can do, it’s a big loss, not just to T.J.’s office but to all of us.”
It would be understandable if Chater were irate about the DHR’s denial. He’s not. As with virtually every obstacle he’s encountered, Chater takes it in stride and moves on.
“I’ve met people in my lifetime who are more interested in spending their lives thinking and talking about why some people don’t have the same advantages as other people. The world is not always a fair place. It sucks,” he says. “But I don’t want to spend my life pointing out everything that’s wrong with the world.”
Still, Chater — and the court — will feel the impact of the decision, given that a crucial component of his job is "marking the file" of each defendant to track every development in the case. As Chater can’t physically do that, Dolan must do it for him.
Ironically, if Vermont weren’t experiencing a huge delay in implementing its new, $4.7 million electronic case-management system, which is already a year behind schedule, Chater wouldn’t even need an assistant in court. Give him a laptop or a tablet, and he could mark the file himself.
One flight up from courtroom 2B, Chater returns to his small, third-floor office overlooking Pearl Street to catch up on some emails. Chater does many things slower than most people, but writing isn’t one of them.
“I guess you’ve never seen how I do things,” he says, maneuvering his wheelchair under a head harness that rests in a cradle beside his computer. Chater quickly ducks his head into the harness, which is mounted with an angled aluminum pointer he uses to type — his “head stick,” he calls it.
“This is my third hand, my primary tool for everything,” Chater explains, deftly pecking at the keyboard with astounding speed and accuracy. “Over the years, I’ve tried various pieces of software and adaptive equipment, but I’m more comfortable with this. I kind of get into the zone when I’m working.”
Chater has written this way since the third grade and can now type about 25 words per minute. That’s how he took the Texas bar exam, a grueling endurance test that involved six eight-hour days, including 12 essays, 200 multiple-choice questions and 40 short-answer questions. “It was insane!” he recalls.
While Chater makes it look easy, it’s anything but.
“I expend more physical energy doing just about everything than most other people do,” he says. “But this is the only body I’ve ever had, so for me, I don’t notice it.”
Chater has been physically disabled since birth. Owing to complications during his delivery, his brain was briefly deprived of oxygen, resulting in brain damage. Although his mental capacities are intact, his motor functions were permanently impaired.
“I have very unique body mechanics, which are difficult to describe in a way that other people can fully understand,” Chater explains. “I’m totally in tune with my body. I know the patterns of how it works. I’m one with it.”
Chater could have chosen a more sedentary job as a lawyer. But he says he loves the adrenaline rush and fast pace of the courtroom, even though it requires considerable stamina for him to keep up.
“I definitely want to have an impact on my world,” he says. “The way I have chosen to make that impact is by doing my thing and letting people see how I do my thing.”
After his long explanation, Chater takes a breather, lets out a deep sigh, then stares out the window in Zenlike contemplation. For nearly a minute, his entire body falls still, momentarily freed from the jerks and spasms that otherwise keep him in constant motion. During these brief interludes of calm, it’s easy to see beyond the disability to the man within.
Just down the hall, Donovan recalls their first meeting in the summer of 2011, when Chater applied for an unpaid clerkship. Donovan was immediately struck by the amount of effort Chater had to put into their conversation.
“I remember seeing him sweat — and it wasn’t from the types of questions I was asking,” Donovan says. “It was the duration of the interview. And at the end I said, ‘We want you.’”
Chater clerked for Donovan for the next six months. In February, when a full-time prosecutor’s position opened up, Chater was one of several clerks to apply. Looking back, Donovan admits he had serious reservations about hiring Chater.
He wasn’t the only one. According to Donovan, his entire staff met for a “really honest and hard conversation” about the decision. While no one doubted Chater’s legal acumen — indeed, Donovan describes his research and writing ability as “one of the best” he’s seen — several staffers questioned whether Chater could hack it in such a physically demanding environment.
But then someone in the room pointed out that, decades ago, people used to say the same thing about blacks and women in the workplace. That comment, Donovan remembers, cast the conversation in a whole new light.
“The guy just won me over with his work ethic and his determination,” he says. “He thought he could do the job. I thought he could do the job. So we gave him the opportunity.”
Donovan isn’t the only one Chater has won over. Understandably, local judges contacted for this story declined to be interviewed. But several defense lawyers who routinely deal with Chater in court have nothing but good things to say about him.
“I’m extraordinarily impressed with Ben,” says Frank Twarog, a defense attorney with the Burlington firm of Murdoch Hughes & Twarog. “I haven’t seen any of his physical limitations be an impediment to his effectiveness as a prosecutor. His knowledge of the law and his ability to advocate for the state are quite effective.”
There’s one milestone Chater has yet to reach as a litigator: He hasn’t argued his first jury trial. Like all new deputy SAs in Chittenden County, Chater mostly handles misdemeanors, the overwhelming majority of which settle before going to trial. But it’s only a matter of time before Chater makes his case to a jury, a daunting prospect for any new lawyer, let alone one with his challenges.
As Donovan points out, trials are physically and mentally exhausting, requiring long days in court under constant pressure. A prosecutor has to be able to think and react quickly, raising objections to questions before a witness can respond and potentially influence the jury.
And as any experienced litigator can attest, there’s more to winning cases than just having the facts and the law on one’s side. Trial lawyers not only have to be persuasive; they must also put jurors at ease and connect with them emotionally. Could that be an issue for Chater, especially with jurors who have little or no experience around someone with a severe physical impairment?
“It may be. Only time will tell,” Donovan allows. “But every challenge Ben has faced in this job, he’s met and overcome. Give the guy a chance. Will he relate to a jury? I have every confidence he will.”
Twarog, who’s been a trial lawyer for more than a decade, agrees. While he concedes that Chater’s disability could be a stumbling block to some jurors, people with such discomfort or bias will most likely be weeded out during the voir dire, or jury-selection process.
Indeed, Twarog suggests that Chater’s disability could just as easily work to his advantage, as juries may view him more sympathetically. Or, Twarog adds, they may simply find him to be a likable guy.
“I think Ben’s personality is endearing to the people who meet him,” he says. “Honestly, I would prefer to try a case against a drone.”
Defense attorney Paul Jarvis, with the Burlington firm of Jarvis, McArthur & Williams, has been a litigator for 40 years. He is equally unbothered by Chater’s physical limitations.
“I enjoy dealing with Ben,” Jarvis says. “He’s a smart young man, he’s a good prosecutor and, with years of experience, he’ll only get better.”
Jarvis concedes that sometimes he has difficulty understanding Chater when he speaks, “but that’s more my own problem. My hearing is not the best.”
Others in Burlington’s legal community have deeper reservations, not only about Chater’s ability to make himself understood but also about the pace at which he works.
Margaret Jansch is the supervising attorney for the Chittenden County Public Defender’s Office. Chittenden County sees between 5000 and 6000 cases a year. The 11 attorneys in her office handle at least 75 percent of them.
While Jansch has had only limited direct contact with Chater, in talking with her staff she’s heard one consistent observation about him: “It takes at least twice as long in court to get anything accomplished.” That’s a concern for her office, she says, “and I’m sure it’s a concern for the court.”
Jansch recounts one recent incident in court when it seemed to take Chater an especially long time to get his words out.
“Because the judge knew where he was going anyway, rather than having Ben complete the state’s argument, he just cut to the chase,” Jansch says. Chater, she adds, “was cut right out of the picture.”
While such delays may be minor inconveniences during arraignments and other routine proceedings, Jansch won’t hazard a guess as to how Chater will perform under the stress of a full-blown trial.
“I don’t know,” she says. “The jury is still out.”
While plenty of local lawyers can speak to how hard Chater works on the job, Bo Muller-Moore knows firsthand how hard Chater works to have a good time. Back in 1998, before he was the “Eat More Kale” guy who got slapped with a trademark suit by the national fast-food chain Chick-fil-A, Muller-Moore worked at Montpelier High School as an aide for a young man with autism. It was there that he met Chater, then a sophomore who needed someone to drive him home each day and help with routine chores.
Initially, Muller-Moore recalls, it was just about “making a few extra bucks.” But soon the two, who share similar tastes in music, developed a close and lasting friendship. After school, they’d often go for long drives together, listening to Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd or Phish. After a while, Muller-Moore says, “Taking a check for that friendship didn’t feel right at all.”
When Chater began thinking about attending college, he told his friend he was considering Duke or the University of Connecticut. Surprised, Muller-Moore told Chater he’d assumed his friend would prefer a “freakier” campus — like Berkeley. Two months later, Chater informed Muller-Moore he’d been accepted at Berkeley and was going there that fall.
Chater graduated with honors in 2006. He was awarded the Departmental Citation for Excellence in Linguistics by his faculty, the only Berkeley student that year to receive the honor.
Despite the distance between them, Chater and Muller-Moore maintained their friendship. Chater moved to San Francisco, just two blocks away from the famed Fillmore Auditorium, and the two occasionally met up for concerts and road trips.
Muller-Moore enjoys seeing live music with Chater, though he’s often astounded at the way people treat his friend. Some will come up to Chater and, without even asking, hug him, bless him or tell him how proud they are that he’s attending the show.
But lovey-dovey Phishheads are nothing, Muller-Moore adds, compared with the people who walk up to Chater, speak to him in a loud, slow voice as though he were mentally impaired, “then pat him on the head.”
Muller-Moore, a self-described “wise-ass hillbilly from Alabama,” says he usually unleashes on those people. Chater doesn’t, he says. Invariably, he returns such condescension with dignity and grace.
“He accepts that people don’t mean any harm by it,” Muller-Moore adds, “and he treats them with more respect than they deserve.”
In the fall of 2007, Chater left the Bay Area to go to the UT-Austin School of Law. As if attending law school full time weren’t enough work, Chater also took on a 20-hour-a-week job as a criminal law clerk in the Travis County Attorney’s Office.
At UT, as at Berkeley, Chater made a big impression on the faculty and his classmates. One of his professors, Wayne Schiess, remembers having Chater in his first-semester legal-writing class.
“One day, as I was saying good-bye to a student who had been in my office to ask for an extension on an assignment, I saw Ben waiting. I thought he was there to get an extension, too,” Schiess writes in an email. “He began to explain that he was going to California for a conference, and I was even surer that he was going to ask for an extension. And why not? He types his papers with a rod strapped to his head.”
Schiess was ready to offer the extension when Chater said, “‘Could you reach into my backpack and pull out my paper? Since I’m going to be out of town, I’m turning in my paper ahead of time.’ This is the kind of thing that endears a student to a writing teacher,” Schiess notes.
While he’s shown exemplary individual drive, Chater must still rely almost exclusively on other people for his most basic personal needs — eating, bathing, dressing, shopping, getting in and out of bed. Says Muller-Moore, “You’ll never know how much effort that guy puts into life until you go on a road trip with him ... And he gets no respite from that. If he wakes up at 2 a.m. with an itch between his shoulder blades, that’s tough luck, you know?”
Chater met Andy Dolan, his current personal aide, in March 2010 through an employment ad on Craigslist. When Chater finished law school and decided to return to Vermont, Dolan agreed to move north with him and help him get settled.
“I was only going to stay a few months, but we have a very comfortable working relationship,” Dolan says. “Ben is a really great guy to work for. He’s really calm. Nothing fazes him. And he’s become a really good friend of mine.”
Dolan is one of up to 10 personal assistants who work for Chater in various shifts throughout the week. As Dolan explains, Chater prefers surrounding himself not with “professional” personal-care attendants but with diverse people who have unique backgrounds, including an organic farmer, a horse trainer and, in Dolan’s case, a theater director. Dolan calls them “Ben’s eclectic family of caregivers.”
Soon, though, Dolan will return to his hometown in St. Paul, Minn. Who will replace him at Chater’s side in court remains to be seen.
In the meantime, Dolan and Chater are back together at the prosecutor’s table on another Thursday, this time for a status conference involving a local antiques dealer accused of fencing stolen goods.
During the proceeding, Chater asks the judge if he can approach the bench. As he and the defending attorney converse quietly, it’s evident that Chater has a little trouble whispering.
When the hearing is over, Chater rolls himself out of the courtroom. In the process, his wheelchair accidentally clips the toe of another attorney holding the door for him.
“That’s the fourth time this week you Hawking’ed me!” the attorney says half-jokingly, referring to famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who also uses a wheelchair.
“Sorry! Sorry!” Chater says with a smile.
But Chater, who’s known for his quick, but never bitter, sense of humor, isn’t grinning because of the pain he may have caused. It’s because the judge just assigned him his first jury trial, scheduled for January. The lawyers will pick a jury next month.
Ultimately, Chater’s impact on Vermont may be measured not by the number of cases he wins but by the defendants who get to watch him work. As Chater practices a profession where he encounters a steady stream of people with all kinds of troubled pasts and social dysfunctions, perhaps some will see him and say to themselves, If he can overcome everything life has thrown at him, maybe I can, too.
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