Burlington man convicted in 2017 meat cleaver killing sentenced to more than 20 years in prison
A man with a severe mental illness who was convicted of killing his wife with a meat cleaver and attacking his mother-in-law in 2017 will spend more than 20 years in prison.
Judge John Pacht sentenced Aita Gurung, 40, on Wednesday to serve 27 years on a 35-years-to-life sentence for the murder of his wife, Yogeswari Khadka, and 20 years to life for the attempted murder of his mother-in-law, Tulasa Rimal.
Gurung will serve both sentences at the same time, and he’ll receive time-served credit for the six years he’s been imprisoned while awaiting trial. If he’s released in the future, he’d be required to follow strict probation conditions, including required mental health treatment.
“This case generated extraordinary public debate,” Pacht said during Wednesday’s sentencing hearing. “It exposed significant tensions between the uneasy intersection of serious mental health issues with brutal offense conduct and behavior. And it makes this sentencing particularly hard for the court.”
“This case generated extraordinary public debate ... it exposed significant tensions between the uneasy intersection of serious mental health issues with brutal offense conduct and behavior. And it makes this sentencing particularly hard for the court.”Judge John Pacht
The case sparked a political firestorm in 2019 after Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George dismissed it. All the mental health experts involved, including ones hired by prosecutors, determined Gurung was insane at the time of the killing.
Shortly after George dismissed Gurung’s case and two others involving the insanity defense, Gov. Phil Scott called on then-Attorney General TJ Donovan to review the cases — a highly unusual move. Donovan ultimately re-filed charges against Gurung and in the other two cases.
The October 2017 killing is one of the more grisly cases in Vermont in recent years. Gurung attacked his wife and mother-in-law at their home, and the melee spilled out onto the street. 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.
The attack came just hours after Gurung voluntarily checked himself out of the University of Vermont Medical Center, where he’d been hospitalized due to severe mental health issues.
Gurung’s mental state at the time of the killing was the main focus during the trial last year. His attorneys presented testimony from doctors who described Gurung’s long history with severe anxiety, depression and paranoia. Gurung, who's Bhutanese and who spent two decades living at refugee camp before coming to Burlington, also reported hearing voices that ordered him to do certain things.
Prosecutors with the Vermont Attorney General’s office argued that alcoholism and a pattern of domestic violence led to the killing.
The jury rejected Gurung’s insanity defense and found him guilty of first degree murder and attempted second degree murder. But the jury did send Pacht a note, which he read during Wednesday’s sentencing, that said even though there wasn’t enough evidence to prove Gurung was insane, there was unanimous agreement that Gurung’s mental illness influenced his actions.
Pacht said that while “every single” mental health worker determined Gurung had a “severe psychotic disorder,” he also needed to consider Gurung's “horrific” actions.
“The damage done to the surviving family members can't be measured, and none of that can be measured in years of imprisonment either,” the judge said.
The sentencing was delayed for more than a year, because Gurung's mental health deteriorated, and there were questions whether he would be able to understand the sentencing process, according to court records.
Gurung’s attorneys had asked Pacht to only require Gurung to serve 10 years of a 35-year-to-life sentence before being released on parole with strict conditions. In a brief statement on behalf of her client, public defender Sandra Lee said Gurung appreciated that the court considered his mental health issues in his sentence.
“He recognizes the horrific nature of his offenses and he accepts the judge’s sentence,” Lee said, speaking to reporters after the hearing.
“My mind wasn’t working."Aita Gurung
Attorney General Charity Clark, in a written statement, thanked Khadka’s family for speaking during the sentencing hearing.
“Yogeswari was a brave, hardworking mother who immigrated to the United States in hopes of building a brighter future for her family,” Clark said in the statement. “Her voice and the voice of her mother, Tulasa, who tried to save her, deserved to be heard.”
Pacht’s sentence wasn’t as severe as what prosecutors — or the family — had requested. The Attorney General’s office asked Pacht to impose a 35-years-to-life sentence for the killing of Khadka, and a 20-years-to-life sentence for the attempted murder of Tulasa Rimal, Khadka’s mother.
Rimal, who survived after Gurung’s attack, asked Pacht to impose the “harshest punishment possible.”
“My granddaughter became an orphan,” Rimal said, speaking through an interpreter and appearing by video on Tuesday. “My daughter has been killed.”
Gurung’s 13-year-old daughter, who also appeared by video, spoke directly to her father and said his actions destroyed her childhood.
“My mom was a wonderful woman who had a bright personality," she said on Tuesday. “I feel a sense of emptiness and loss when I see other families together, and my dream of having my parents watch me achieve my goals is broken.”
Gurung, in a letter to the court that was read aloud by one of his attorneys on Tuesday, said he felt “incredible guilt.”
“I should have taken my medicine, I should have stopped drinking,” he wrote in the letter. “And my wife and her mother became victims of my terrible actions."
After the letter was read, Gurung, for the first time, addressed the court. He apologized for his actions and he wasn’t in his right mind.
“My mind wasn’t working,” Gurung said, speaking quietly.
“My mom was a wonderful woman who had a bright personality... I feel a sense of emptiness and loss when I see other families together, and my dream of having my parents watch me achieve my goals is broken.”Aita Gurung's 13-year-old daughter
Gurung’s case was the only one of the three refiled insanity defense cases to go to trial. Veronica Lewis, who was charged with attempted murder after shooting her firearm instructor, pleaded guilty to state and federal charges in 2021.
And earlier this year, Louis Fortier pleaded guilty to stabbing Richard Medina to death on Burlington’s Church Street in 2017. In that case, Judge Pacht sentenced Fortier to 20 years to life, with all but six years suspended. However the judge said, according to VTDigger, that he expected Fortier to remain hospitalized at Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital for the “foreseeable future” due to his mental illness.
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