I met Vairin Meesouk for the first time last week, moments before he was sentenced. Several years ago, I wrote about one of his earlier run-ins with the law. I referred to him by his initials, V.M., because he was a juvenile ' 'just a kid,' as one of his defenders put it. Now he's all of 21.
We spoke briefly. Vairin thanked me for my interest, as did the family members around him. He seemed like a nice young man. It's a common impression.
'He['s] a good kid,' a family friend wrote the judge. 'I can recall many times, when I was over at their house, seeing him care for his [2-year-old] daughter. He comforted her when she was crying and fed her and changed her diapers while her mother was busy cooking.' The friend said Vairin was doing all he could to 'make life better for himself and his family.'
That Vairin Meesouk has had a hard life is not in dispute. He was born in a refugee camp in Laos and spent his early years in another camp in Thailand. His family moved to Madison in 1991, when Vairin was 6. His father, a CIA operative, was a drunk who 'chronically beat him for no apparent reason,' according to a state Department of Corrections (DOC) pre-sentencing report. The father eventually abandoned his family.
In 2000, when Vairin was 15, he was charged with multiple felonies as an adult in connection with a series of break-ins, including gas station/convenience stores. He and other youths stole items like cigarettes, and started a small fire at one location.
I wrote about how a local couple ' including one of Vairin's former teachers ' was pushing the Dane County District Attorney's Office to reduce the charges (see this column at TheDailyPage.com). An adult felony conviction, they noted, likely meant that Vairin ' a legal resident but without U.S. citizenship ' would be deported to Laos, where he knows no one, or held indefinitely in an Immigration and Naturalization Service prison.
It was a horrifying punishment for crimes in which no one was hurt and the damage was under $10,000. But the DA's office opposed Circuit Court Judge Diane Nicks' move to amend the charge, to avoid this consequence. Nicks backed off, but in 2002 the underlying issues came before the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
The state called deportation or indefinite lockup a 'collateral consequence' which while 'unfortunate' was not a proper concern for the justice system. The Supremes agreed Nicks could not change the charge but suggested other relief. In 2003, the DA's office reduced the counts to misdemeanors, and Vairin drew four years of probation. But by the time he got this second chance, he had already blown it.
In the early morning hours of Sept. 15, 2002, Vairin, then 17, was one of four youths who broke into a residence on Madison's east side. The 77-year-old man who lived there was beaten and smothered until he lost consciousness. Four rifles were taken and purportedly later tossed.
More than three years later, in January 2006, one of the perpetrators confessed. He claimed Vairin took part in the beating, punching the elderly man in the testicles. Vairin denied this, and the victim did not recall being struck in this fashion.
Vairin at first lied to police, denying any involvement. He later admitted his role. He was charged with four felonies and pleaded guilty to three.
'It was a bad thing to do,' Vairin's lawyer, Yolanda Lehner, said in court last week. 'My client should not have been involved.' But she maintained the youths broke in believing the residence was empty, and that Vairin watched in horror as the elderly man was attacked.
The victim sat behind me in court, radiating quiet indignation to match my own disappointment at Vairin's senseless crime. He told the DOC investigator he wanted the youths to 'get what's coming to them,' but also that the trauma of this crime paled compared to what he experienced in World War II.
Since this break-in, Vairin has had minor scrapes with the law ' notably an altercation with his sister in 2003, for which he received two years of probation. But he's held jobs and met the conditions of his probation. The DOC investigator called him 'a dutiful and loving father' and said he is 'working hard at becoming a mature pro-social adult after experiencing a horrendously hostile, alienated and rebellious youth.'
The prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Doug McLean, was in no mood for mercy. He asked for a 10-year sentence, twice what the DOC recommended. He told the court that 'a weekly newspaper' had previously put 'a lot of pressure' on the DA's office, without which 'we would not have given Mr. Meesouk the incredible consideration he got in these cases.' His bosses, he implied, had wrongly caved to outside pressure.
Lehner, in turn, spoke of her client's deep remorse and steps he's taken to turn his life around, breaking ties with his former associates, taking recommended classes: 'I don't believe he represents a danger to the public today.'
And, like others before her, Lehner urged the court to consider the immigration consequences. A jail term of under a year ' even 364 days ' would give Vairin at least a fighting chance to avoid deportation. She argued for this and a heavy dollop of community service.
'I'm not saying Vairin Meesouk should not be punished,' she said. 'But I'm asking the court not to punish too much. And too much is being deported.'
Vairin read a statement, expressing remorse and claiming to have changed. 'I have a stronger foundation,' he said, breaking down. 'I'm a father now, and I am currently employed fulltime.... In the future, I will not commit any further offenses.'
Judge Daniel Moeser acknowledged some of the positive steps the defendant had taken, but also the seriousness of his crime. He then sentenced him to eight years ' three in prison, followed by five on extended supervision. He acknowledged this could trigger deportation but said 'that's a consequence of committing a crime like this.'
Deputies slapped on the cuffs and led Vairin away. The involvement of immigration authorities is virtually assured, either before he completes his prison term or immediately afterward. He will likely never hold his daughter as a free man in this country again. He'll spend the rest of his life behind bars, or in permanent exile.
'I'm sorry,' Lehner told Vairin's family afterwards. 'I'm so sorry I couldn't stop it.'
Perhaps no one could have. Except maybe Vairin ' back when he was 17, before his chances ran out.