A Norwich woman was commended for displaying grace in a courtroom Wednesday. Marcela Lee, a victim of a racist incident, said that she hopes to show her abuser empathy and create a teachable moment.
Holly Chalifoux, a Plainfield woman, was arrested in June and charged with third-degree intimidation based on bigotry or bias after she was caught on video yelling a racial slur at Marcela Lee in a Starbucks drive-thru.
"I think you knew what you were doing when you said what you said. And I think you said it intentionally," Lee said to Chalifoux in court Wednesday, looking directly at her, during a victim impact statement.
The incident happened in early June. Lee was in a Starbucks drive-thru when Chalifoux, who was behind her, started revving her engine and yelling at Lee. Lee started recording on Facebook and captured the interaction on camera. Chalifoux is heard yelling a racial slur, directed at Lee.
According to Assistant State's Attorney Christa Baker, Chalifoux denied to police that she yelled a racial slur until she was shown the video recording. Baker said that Chalifoux told police she suffered from mental health issues and was off prescribed medication due to pregnancy, adding that she felt that if she was on the medication the incident wouldn't have happened.
"I feel very, very bad at the fact that you weren't able to take your meds, but that is not an excuse," Lee said to Chalifoux.
Chalifoux declined to speak with NBC Connecticut. Her attorney, Jerome Paun, said that she has suffered with mental health issues since she was a teenager.
“I believe it did contribute to the problem, but it’s not the problem. The problem is we live in a racist society," Paun said.
Based on Chalifoux's history with mental illness, she was eligible for a supervised diversionary program. Judge Nuala Droney granted the program, with Lee's support.
Chalifoux is ordered to three years in the program, which includes mandatory mental health treatment. She will also have to conduct community service which, at Lee's request, can be completed while working alongside Lee.
"Get to know me," said Lee. "Get to know people who are different from you."
Chalifoux told the judge that she regrets what she said.
In addition to mental health counseling, community service, anger management and bullying classes, Chalifoux will have to take part in a hate crime diversion program. The program will include implicit bias training.
"Your behavior was wrong and you will learn during the counseling why it was," said Droney.
If Chalifoux completes both programs successfully, she has the possibility of earning a clean record and having the charge dismissed, but it does not automatically result in a dismissal. Chalifoux will have to check in on a yearly basis until 2024.
“Whatever racism she grew up with, this program will help her to address and look at more carefully,” said Paun.
Lee said that she hopes Chalifoux is able to learn and grow from the experience.
"We did a good thing. It wasn't vindictive. We weren't sweeping it under the rug either," said Lee, commenting on the hearing. "We were trying to show understanding, empathy to someone who needs help."