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Jury rejects insanity defense and finds Burlington man guilty of killing wife with a meat cleaver in 2017

Burlington resident Aita Gurung, age 34, was arrested Thursday after allegedly attacking his wife and her mother with a meat cleaver.
Ryan Mercer
/
Burlington Free Press
After a nearly month-long trial and four days of deliberations, a jury found Aita Gurung, 39, guilty of murdering his wife and attacking his mother-in-law. The jury rejected that Gurung was insane at the time of the crime.

After four days of deliberation, a jury rejected a mentally ill man’s insanity defense and convicted him of murdering his wife and attacking his mother-in-law.

Aita Gurung, 39, was found guilty on two charges: first-degree murder for killing his wife, Yogeswari Khadka, and attempted second-degree murder for attacking his mother-in-law, Tulasa Rimal. He faces a potential life sentence.

Speaking to reporters after the verdict, Assistant Attorney General Rose Kennedy, one of the prosecutors, thanked the jury for their work.

“This case was about Yogeswari Khadka and Tulasa Rimal and their courage,” Kennedy said. “We were just really pleased to be able to put that in front of the jury and let them sort of learn about these very brave, courageous women.”

But the case likely never would have reached a jury, if not for the intervention of Gov. Phil Scott. Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George dropped the charges in 2019 after all the mental health experts who examined Gurung, including one hired by her office, determined he was insane at the time of the killing.

But in a highly unusual move, Scott asked then-Attorney General TJ Donovan to review Gurung’s case and two other high-profile murder cases George dismissed for the same reason. Donovan ultimately refiled charges in all three cases. It’s rare for the governor or the attorney general to intervene in a decision made by an independently elected county prosecutor.

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

Scott, in a written statement, praised the verdict.

“The primary responsibility of any government is public safety. And that means we cannot allow violent criminals to potentially walk free,” Scott said in the statement. “This case — and the victims — deserved their day in court. Justice was served.”

Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George was not available for comment.

The nearly month-long trial largely focused on whether Gurung was insane at the time of the killing. If a person is found to be legally insane, which means a mental illness impaired their ability to follow the law, they can’t be held criminally responsible for their actions. The defense must prove insanity by a “preponderance of evidence,” a lower standard than “beyond reasonable doubt.”

Gurung spent three days in the hospital before the killing because he was experiencing severe mental health troubles. He voluntarily left the hospital and a few hours later, he attacked his wife and his mother-in-law. Witnesses told police they saw Gurung standing outside his apartment hitting his wife with a meat cleaver.

Gurung’s attorneys presented testimony from doctors who described Gurung’s long history with severe anxiety, depression and paranoia. Gurung, who's Bhutanese and spent two decades living at refugee camp before coming to Burlington, also reported hearing voices that ordered him to do certain things. The defense presented testimony from experts who opined that Gurung was insane at the time of the killings. The Attorney General’s office argued that a pattern of domestic violence and alcoholism led to the killing. The state called several members of Gurung’s family to testify, including Gurung’s daughter who said she once saw her father strangle her mother with a scarf.

Gurung’s public defender, Sandra Lee, said the jury’s verdict, while disappointing, was understandable given how the state defines legal insanity.

“It is very difficult to look very carefully at what are severe mental illness and all the different types of psychosis that there is, and to try to weigh that and really understand that when it is not something that you understand thoroughly and completely,” Lee said, speaking to reporters outside the courtroom.

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

Lee said she will argue for Gurung to serve his sentence at a mental health facility. She also plans to appeal the conviction.

“It's my belief that the safest place for the public, for Mr. Gurung is to be both at the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital and supervised by the Department of Corrections at the same time,” Lee said.

Following the verdict, Judge John Pacht allowed Gurung to stay at the state psychiatric hospital, a locked facility, despite a request from the Attorney General’s office to move him to prison.

“I don't quarrel with the jury's verdict, but I think Mr. Gurung has a very serious mental health disorder,” Pacht said. “At this potentially unstable time, what is lost by having him in a secure facility where he’s getting treatment?”

The court will hold a hearing next week to determine if Gurung will remain in the hospital, Pacht said.

The verdict of the Gurung case means there’s only one of the refiled insanity cases awaiting resolution. Veronica Lewis, who was accused of shooting her firearms instructor, pleaded guilty to federal and state charges last year.

The remaining case against Louis Fortier is still pending. Fortier allegedly stabbed another man to death in downtown Burlington in 2017. Fortier’s attorney asked the court to dismiss the case after a new expert hired by the AG’s office found Fortier insane at the time of the killing. A hearing on that 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 a reporter based in Burlington and covers a variety of issues, including courts, law enforcement and housing.
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