Community Rallies Around Refugee

Peter Hirschfeld, AP, May 3, 2006

BARRE, Vermont—On a night last August, Dodzi Kpesse brandished a pellet gun and robbed $217.06 from the Fast Stop Exxon on Main Street. Then he walked across the road and ordered a cheeseburger from Burger King.

He took his sandwich outside, sat on the curb, and waited for the police.

Kpesse, a 19-year-old refugee from the tiny west African nation of Togo, wanted to return to his native country, he later told police and lawyers. Committing a crime and being deported seemed the easiest way to find a plane ride home.

It would have been an effective strategy if Kpesse had indeed wanted to leave the United States. In fact, the refugee was in the midst of a “severe depressive episode” when he committed the offense, according to Washington County State’s Attorney Craig Nolan. It was a diagnosis for which Kpesse would later receive treatment.

But the die was cast: Under federal immigration law, refugees convicted of felonies are deported. Kpesse was charged with armed robbery, which is a felony, and held on $5,000 bail. And then many amazing things happened.

Over the next eight months, dozens of former teachers and employers lobbied for Kpesse’s release and raised more than $2,000 toward his bail. The community support convinced the county’s lead prosecutor that this was a unique case.

On Monday, the now-20-year-old Kpesse pleaded guilty to reduced charges that will allow him to remain in the country.

“The state’s obligation is to pursue justice in every case, and not just seek convictions for every charge it can file,” Nolan said Monday during Kpesse’s plea hearing. “The state feels this amendment is appropriate.”

Kpesse, who came to the United States five years ago with his parents and three siblings, immediately endeared himself to classmates and teachers at Spaulding High School in Barre, according to defense lawyer Richard Rubin.

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He knew the store clerk from school. She first thought he was joking, according to an affidavit. He wasn’t. He took the money, some beer, and made no attempt to flee the police he knew would come, Rubin said.

“The cops came to arrest him and they asked him, ‘Did you do this because you wanted to go back to Africa?’ and he said, ‘Yes,”’ Rubin said. “This was a cry for help.”

Rubin told District Court Judge Walter Morris that courts across the country are fashioning plea agreements that circumvent “what people perceive as very draconian immigration standards.”

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