After eight months, autistic man accused in attack to be released from jail

  • Assistant Northwestern District Attorney Jennifer Suhl arrives for a bail hearing for Zachary Holmes of Belchertown in Superior Court in Northampton on Monday. —Kevin Gutting

  • Joann Holmes of Belchertown smiles after waving to her son, Zachary Holmes, during his appearance for a bail hearing in Superior Court in Northampton on Monday. —Kevin Gutting

  • Zachary Holmes of Belchertown appears at a bail hearing in Superior Court in Northampton on Monday. —Kevin Gutting

  • Maureen Kirk, a risk manager for the Central Western office of the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services, answers a question from Superior Court Judge John Ferrara during a bail hearing for Zachary Holmes of Belchertown on Monday in Northampton. Seated, second from right, is Holmes' mother, Joann Holmes. —Kevin Gutting

  • Zachary Holmes, left, of Belchertown appears at a bail hearing in Superior Court in Northampton on Monday with his attorney, Alfred Chamberland. Kevin Gutting

  • Joann Holmes, center, of Belchertown watches her son, Zachary Holmes, right, being escorted from Superior Court in Northampton after his bail hearing on Monday. At far left is Maureen Kirk, a risk manager for the Central Western office of the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services. Kevin Gutting

Friday, June 24, 2016

NORTHAMPTON — As she watched her special needs son, bound by handcuffs and shackles, come and go from a courtroom for eight months, Joann Holmes experienced a flurry of different emotions: sadness, anger, shock, helplessness.

On Monday, the single mother experienced a sensation she had trouble putting into words: relief.  

After about eight months behind bars, Zachary Holmes, the 21-year-old autistic man who stands accused of trying to kill his 54-year-old mother in their Belchertown home last September, is scheduled to be released to a supervised residence in Amherst on Tuesday morning.

The apartment will be staffed by Department of Developmental Services officials who will offer around-the-clock supervision, Zachary’s attorney Alfred Chamberland, of Easthampton, said in court.

At a dangerousness hearing in February, Hampshire Superior Court Judge Mary-Lou Rup ruled that Holmes would continue to be held until his attorney found an assisted-care residence that could accommodate his needs. 

Judge John Ferrara, with Chamberland and Assistant Northwestern District Attorney Jennifer Suhl in agreement, ruled Monday that Holmes may be released to the DDS-supervised apartment on his personal recognizance.

Zachary — who prosecutors allege choked and stabbed his mother, seriously injuring her, after a dispute last September — pleaded not guilty to attempted murder and armed assault charges. The man’s family has said that he is autistic and developmentally delayed and functions at the cognitive level of a middle-schooler, largely unaware of the circumstances unfolding around him.

Chamberland argued in court Monday that Zachary be allowed outside the apartment with supervision to enjoy leisure activities — like going to the movies, visiting Barnes & Noble Booksellers and shopping at the mall — so that he may begin to reclaim some normalcy after his time spent in the Hampshire County Jail.

“He needs to learn to be part of the community,” Chamberland said. “This is not an individual the community needs to be afraid of. This is a man who suffers from autism who needs therapeutic services.”

As Chamberland made his case to the judge, Zachary looked up at his attorney standing directly above him.

“Thank you so much for all of this,” Zachary said to Chamberland with a soft grin. “I’m so proud of you.”

However, while Suhl said she agreed with Zachary’s release to the supervised residence, she told the judge she did not support him being permitted to wander around freely.

Ferrara agreed and ruled that Zachary will be confined to the apartment except for medical or religious reasons, wear a GPS device and be subject to around-the-clock supervision.

Zachary is also required to stay away from Joann and his younger brother upon his release. Joann has not visited with Zachary since his arrest.

The attorneys also said in court that there are “serious” talks regarding a possible resolution of the case prior to trial, but they did not offer specifics. Zachary’s due back in court July 6.

The relationship between Zachary and his mother was one with “growing tensions” over a year, culminating with the alleged attack in September 2015, Suhl previously said in court. She noted that police were called to the home a year before regarding a violent outburst, but no arrest was made.

Joann insists she never wanted charges filed against Zachary and remains a staunch advocate for his release and acquittal.

In the courtroom, she often tightly clenches the bench beneath her, gently rocking back and forth. The hardest part, she said sitting outside the courtroom Monday, has been remaining silent during the proceedings.

“You ever hear of those people in comas?” Joann said. “How they can hear everything around them but not say anything?”

After Monday’s hearing, Chamberland gathered with Joann and other family members.

It is always a long way to the end of any rainbow, he said, and usually “there will be a reward at the end of the rainbow which is what we’re hoping.”

As Joann walked outside the courthouse Monday, she said she felt better than she has in months.

Looking forward to her son’s release Tuesday morning, she said, “I’ll be happy tomorrow when he’s not sleeping in that orange jumpsuit.” 

Michael Majchrowicz can be reached at mmajchrowicz@gazettenet.com or 413-585-5234.