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In high-profile & politicized murder case in Burlington, the alleged killer’s mental state is on trial

A person wearing a red flannel shirt is in the middle of three people, one in a police uniform, two others is formal clothing.
Sasha Goldstein
Seven Days
In 2019, Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George dismissed the case against Aita Gurung, after she determined her office didn't have evidence to refute his planned insanity defense. The attorney general's office refiled the charges later that year after a request from the governor. Gurung's trial began about two weeks ago and could wrap up soon.

Dr. William Horn met Aita Gurung in 2015, shortly after Gurung was admitted to the University of Vermont Medical Center following two suicide attempts. Horn, during testimony in court on Friday, recalled that Gurung was depressed, startled by loud noises, and exhibited some unusual behavior, like eating paper.

“If you sort of take all those things together, it sort of makes me wonder a little bit whether or not there was some brewing psychosis,” Horn said.

Horn said at the time he also thought Gurung might be experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. Gurung, who is Bhutanese, had recently immigrated with his wife and daughter to Burlington. Prior to coming to the United States, Gurung spent two decades living at a refugee camp in Nepal.

Gurung was eventually discharged from the hospital. But he returned in October 2017, checking himself in because he’d been throwing things around the house, Horn said.

Gurung also reported experiencing severe depression, daily nightmares and auditory hallucinations, Horn said.

“He describes hearing multiple voices most of the day, and that he only has a few minutes each day free of voices,” Horn said, reading from his 2017 notes. “These voices are saying ‘do this, or do that, or I’ll kill you.’”

"He describes hearing multiple voices most of the day, and that he only has a few minutes each day free of voices."
Dr. William Horn

Gurung spent three days at the hospital before voluntarily checking himself out. Horn said he didn’t want Gurung to leave, but under state law, there wasn’t enough evidence to involuntarily hold Gurung.

Just a few hours after Gurung left the hospital, he attacked his mother-in-law and wife with a meat cleaver. Witnesses told police that Gurung struck his wife with the cleaver multiple times on the street in front of their home in Burlington’s Old North End. Gurung’s wife, Yogeswari Khadka died, and his mother-in-law, Tulasa Rimal, survived but suffered serious injuries.

Now, five years later, a jury will decide whether Gurung, 39, was insane at the time of the alleged killing, or whether he should be sent to prison.

More from Vermont Public: How should Vermont handle insanity cases? Debate grows after charges refiled in Burlington killing

All the mental health experts who examined Gurung, including one hired by prosecutors, determined he was legally insane, which led Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George to dismiss the case in 2019.

If someone is found legally insane, which means a mental illness impaired their ability to follow the law, they can’t be held criminally responsible for their actions. In Vermont, the defense has to provide insanity by a “preponderance of evidence,” a lower standard than “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

George concluded that Gurung’s defense attorneys could prove their client was insane.

"The State does not have sufficient evidence to rebut the evidence supporting legal insanity," George wrote in 2019. “To conduct criminal prosecutions in a manner that is prejudicial to the administration of justice would constitute misconduct."

But her decision in the Gurung case sparked a political backlash.

George dismissed two other high-profile murder cases at the same time, for the same reasons. All of the prosecutor’s decisions were rooted in expert findings.

Shortly after George dismissed the cases, Gov. Phil Scott asked then-Attorney General TJ Donovan to review the cases. It is highly unusual for a governor or attorney general to intervene in decisions made by state’s attorneys, who are independently elected.

“A civil society cannot function properly when a heinous violent crime is not properly adjudicated, and the public is put at risk,” Scott wrote in a letter requesting Donovan’s review.

More from Vermont Public: Vermont Attorney General refiles charge after request from the governor

Donovan, who stepped down earlier this year, refiled the charges in each case.

“The issue of sanity is a question of fact, and a question of fact you put in front of a judge or you put in front of a jury," Donovan told reporters after Gurung's 2019 arraignment. "You put all the evidence out there — the good, the bad — and you let people decide. That's how our system of justice works."

(Donovan had previously served as Chittenden County State’s Attorney, and George had been one of his deputies.)

"The issue of sanity is a question of fact, and a question of fact you put in front of a judge or you put in front of a jury."
Former Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan

Gurung faces two counts: 1st degree murder and attempted 1st degree murder — charges that could land him in prison for life, with the possibility of parole.

In Gurung’s trial, prosecutors from the attorney general’s office says that alcoholism and a pattern of alleged domestic violence led to the killing of Yogeswari Khadka and the attempted murder of Khadka’s mother.

“[The] defendant may have been sick, but the state’s evidence will show that he was not insane,” said Assistant Attorney General Rose Kennedy during opening arguments.

More from Vermont Public: ‘Insanity is a legal defense … not a medical diagnosis’: AG Donovan defends refiled murder charges

Over the course of three days, prosecutors called police who responded to the scene, and played graphic body camera footage that showed Gurung standing with a meat cleaver by his wife’s body.

“I saw deep lacerations,” said officer Gregory Short, one of the first Burlington police officers to respond. “She was covered in blood.”

The state also called members of Gurung’s family, including his 12-year-old daughter, who now lives with relatives out of state. His daughter, during her testimony, said her parents got into fights over her dad’s drinking habits, and that once she saw Gurung strangle Khadka with a scarf.

A photo of a Burlington Police car outside a home, with caution tape across the driveway.
Taylor Dobbs
Vermont Public File
A police car parkerd outside the Gurung's apartment in Burlington's Old North End.

Tulasa Rimal, Gurung’s mother-in-law who survived the attack, told the jury that just before the alleged killing, Gurung and Khadka fought about drinking and money, according to WCAX.

Rimal also testified that in the days before the murder, Gurung was walking around the house naked, talking to himself and acting “crazy.”

But the state’s evidence did not include any expert witnesses to dispute psychiatrists' previous findings that Gurung was insane.

Instead, prosecutors have tried to poke holes in the testimony of doctors who treated Gurung and evaluated his mental state after the killing.

During her cross-examination of Dr. Horn, Kennedy tried to connect Gurung’s anxiety and depression to alcohol withdrawal. Horn dismissed the claim saying it was “extraordinarily” unlikely that alcohol withdrawal caused Gurung’s psychosis.

The defense is leaning heavily on expert findings that Gurung was severely mentally ill.

The trial, which is scheduled to last a month, appears to be moving faster than expected, though it is unclear when the jury will begin deliberations.

More from Vermont Public: 'Disingenuous & Hypocritical': State's Attorney Sarah George Hits Back At AG Refiling Dropped Cases

So far, Gurung’s case is the only one of the three refiled insanity cases to go to trial. Veronica Lewis, who was charged with attempted murder charge after shooting her firearm instructor, pleaded guilty to state and federal charges last year.

The murder case against Louis Fortier, who’s accused of stabbing another man to death in in downtown Burlington in 2017, is pending. This summer an expert hired by the attorney general’s office found Fortier was insane at the time of the alleged crime. Fortier’s attorney has asked a judge to dismiss the case; a hearing on the motion is set for later this year.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Liam Elder-Connors @lseconnors

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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