A 22-year-old Jamestown man faces 25 years in prison after accepting a plea offer in Chautauqua County Court on Thursday.
Eric Chant was accused of stealing a van from a car lot in the town of Pomfret, driving to Jamestown and taking a 12-year-old girl from her home on Aug. 12, 2011. The girl was driven to Scott Hill Road in the town of Poland before she managed to escape. At some point, the girl was able to convince Chant to let her out of the van, at which point she ran until she was able to get to safety and notify the police. Chant was at the Chautauqua County Jail on unrelated charges when he was named as the suspect in the case.
The trial, which was saddled with setbacks in the jury selection process, officially began Thursday. Before either side read their opening statements, the defense agreed to a plea deal that had been presented by David Foley, Chautauqua County district attorney. The plea deal, which was offered in part to spare the victim from having to testify, was also put on the table once evidence came to light that an officer of the Jamestown Police Department had mishandled evidence related to other cases.
"We had an ongoing conversation with the victim and the victim's family, and they indicated that if we could get a plea deal, they would be happy with that," Foley said. "Furthermore, my office was notified by an independent source that an officer of the Jamestown Police Department was, at one time, mishandling evidence. That impacts his veracity as well as the evidence in the case. We don't believe that the officer tampered with any evidence in this case, but it still creates issues.
As a condition of the plea offer, Chant plead guilty to one count of first-degree rape, a class B felony. Chant was also originally charged with felony predatory sexual assault against a child, a second count of felony first-degree rape, one count of felony second-degree kidnapping and felony second-degree burglary, but these charges were not pursued in the plea offer. The Hon. John T. Ward, Chautauqua County Court judge, agreed to accept the plea offer in order to avoid the victim having to take the stand and relive the event.
According to Ned Barone, public defender, in any criminal matter, one of the fundamental rights that every client has is to choose whether or not to accept a plea offer. Any and all plea offers that are received in a case are discussed with the client. Barone said he believes the biggest reason Chant accepted the plea offer was that the most serious charge of sexual predatory behavior was dropped. Sexual predatory behavior carries a possible sentence of 25 years to life.
"The charge that he plead to was one of the lesser charges," Barone said. "There's a guarantee of a determinate incarceration, a definite sentence. We spent months preparing for this trial, including three weeks of jury selection. We were very happy with the jury selection in the end of this case. We were all set to go today, but again, the offer was there. We were told that if it wasn't accepted before opening statements that it would be withdrawn. It wasn't a strategic move on our part, we were prepared to go for however long it took, but this was just the way that everything unfolded. The other thing in a case like this, everyone involved is young. There's never a winner in this type of situation, which makes this a very difficult type of case."
According to Foley, he had been very mindful of the case when speaking to the victim and her family.
"After notifying the victim, she seemed pleased with the outcome. It is bittersweet when you go this far and you're ready to proceed, though. It's a little anti-climactic," he said.
Bob Chant, Eric Chant's father, was also at Thursday's hearing and said he had mixed emotions about the outcome of the case.
"I personally would've taken it all the way to the trial," he said. "I think that he was concerned with the possibility of a life sentence. I'll go to my grave thinking that my son was innocent. Personally, I don't think that he was ever going to get a fair trial. What ever happened to innocent until proven guilty? It never even felt like that was an option during this case."
Chant will be sentenced Nov. 19. He faces 25 years in prison as well as 20 years post-release supervision.
The officer from the Jamestown Police Department accused of mishandling evidence has been placed on administrative leave. Foley and the Jamestown Police Department will hold a news conference at 1 p.m. today to discuss the issue.