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Trials & Tribulations: A week inside Vermont's busiest courthouse reveals a judicial system plagued by delays

A person opens a wooden door to walk inside
James Buck
Seven Days
Judge Edward J. Costello Courthouse

It had taken 569 days, but Ashley Richards' trial was finally set to begin. A dozen jurors waited to take their seats in Courtroom 3A at the Judge Edward J. Costello Courthouse. The court officer and judge's assistant were in their places. So were attorneys for the prosecution and defense, the witnesses, and the victim.

Black-robed Superior Court Judge Kevin Griffin, a pale, soft-spoken man, looked out from the bench toward the attorneys. His eyes were trained on an empty chair at the defense table.

Where was the defendant?

Griffin asked Harley Brown, Richards' court-appointed attorney, if he had any way to call his client. He did not.

"Do we even know where she's living?" Griffin asked.

"We do not," Brown said.

Yet again, justice was on the verge of delay. No one in the courtroom appeared particularly surprised. Delays have become a dismayingly common occurrence in Vermont's court system — a system that is expected to resolve criminal allegations swiftly. The state's judiciary remains mired in a pandemic-era backlog that has seen the number of unresolved criminal cases swell to 15,000, double the pre-pandemic norm. More cases have languished, leaving the accused in limbo while frustrating victims who must wait months — or years — for their shot at justice.

The trend threatens to undermine public trust in the justice system and the rule of law. At the same time, judges and prosecutors face conflicting public demands to lock up repeat offenders while also finding alternatives to incarceration and addressing the underlying causes of criminal behavior.

The exterior of a brick building with the words "Judge Edward J. Costello Courthouse"
James Buck
Judge Edward J. Costello Courthouse

That balancing act, a topic of fierce political debate, is largely unfolding outside the public eye, across thousands of cases that are heard in open courtrooms but don't draw media attention. To see firsthand the barriers to timely justice, Seven Days and Vermont Public spent five days, May 6 through 10, inside the downtown Burlington courthouse, attending hearings and interviewing participants.

Time and again, across the dozens of cases heard in three courtrooms, judges and attorneys struggled to carry out even basic judicial functions through a crush of obstacles.

Hearings were marred by technical difficulties and derailed by scheduling pileups. One arraignment was scuttled when the translator, who joined by phone, couldn't hear anyone in the courtroom, prompting the judge to complain, "This is the best we got?" Court officials scrambled to accommodate defendants who missed their court dates or arrived late. Defendants who were high on drugs or in the midst of a mental health crisis made even low-level cases difficult or impossible to resolve on schedule.

The court process appeared by turns futile, exhausting and farcical. The intense workload prompted one defense attorney, Jason Sawyer, to announce to a judge that he was canceling his state contract to represent indigent defendants because otherwise he would "end up becoming one of my clients."

The trial of Ashley Richards would scrutinize the actions of a homeless woman whose life had spiraled, but the case against her was also a case study of a confounded court system. Richards, 40, was accused of assaulting and robbing an elderly man at an ATM in Burlington in September 2022. The seemingly straightforward case proceeded only haltingly in the 19 months that followed. Richards missed court dates and accrued more than a dozen other low-level charges, including retail theft and trespassing in City Hall Park. Twice she was held in prison, and both times, others bailed her out.

Now, everyone hoped, a two-day trial would bring the case to a resolution, one way or another. But the court could not stage a trial if the accused was not present.

A woman sits at a table and writes notes
Daria Bishop
Seven Days
Defense attorney Harley Brown and Chief Deputy State's Attorney Sally Adams.
A man in black judge's robes speaks
Daria Bishop
Seven Days
Superior Court Judge Kevin Griffin.

The prosecutor, Chief Deputy State's Attorney Sally Adams, had an idea. A Burlington Police Department detective, she explained, thought officers might know where Richards was camping in the city.

"I'm trying to see if maybe somebody can find her," Adams said.

If the cops could get Richards to the courthouse, the trial might still be able to proceed.

"I'll retire to chambers," Judge Griffin said, "and begin praying that Ms. Richards shows up."


Jury draw

Two days earlier, on Monday, the week began with 60 Chittenden County residents seated on wooden benches inside Courtroom 3A.

The potential jurors were restless, having set aside their day to fulfill their civic duty. Some glanced out the windows at the construction cranes across the street. One older man sat quietly reading in the back. Another person dozed off.

Court officials were more excited. They were preparing to pick four juries, including the one that would decide the Richards case. This would mark the largest number of juries selected in a single month in Chittenden County since the pandemic began in March 2020 — and more than were seated in all of 2023.

Most cases never go to trial, but scheduling one provides a deadline that propels cases to settle by plea bargain. The pandemic halted trials for more than a year, causing cases to pile up. A dozen of the Vermont court system's 37 judges have retired since then, creating vacancies that further slowed things down.

The judiciary has managed to reduce its enormous caseload by 17 percent since January 2022, and funding for three more judges is on the way. But more than a third of cases are still lingering longer than they should, according to the judiciary's own guidelines. The most complex felonies, such as murder and aggravated assault, should take fewer than 455 days to resolve. Richards' assault-and-robbery case was already more than 100 days beyond that.

Chittenden County, with the state's busiest criminal docket, has scarcely put a dent in its inflated caseload of about 3,000, which is constantly being replenished by an uptick in new filings for lower-level crimes.

Each of those cases plays out on the upper floors of the four-story courthouse on Cherry Street, whose brick façade seems to disguise it as an office building. Three judges, who rotate to different counties each year, hold hearings in three criminal courtrooms. One is drab and windowless. Courtroom 3A, where jury draws were being held, offers a full wall of sunlight and views of the former department store turned city high school across the street. The office of Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George, a reform-minded progressive, is down the hall, where visitors are greeted by a Martin Luther King Jr. quote that proclaims, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

The three courtrooms are outfitted with large monitors that allow attorneys, defendants and observers to appear remotely — a pandemic innovation — though most participants are now expected to appear in person for criminal hearings. Still, reduced foot traffic has shuttered the Courthouse Café on the ground floor. The judiciary struggles with high staff turnover, which slows hearings as new assistants are trained on the clunky case management software, Odyssey, that has become a source of frustration and the butt of courthouse jokes.

The high volume of cases puts a strain not just on the court staff but also on prosecutors and public defenders. That means the local public defender's office must rely more on contract attorneys such as Brown to handle overflow and take over cases when the office has a conflict of interest.

With a white goatee and his glasses often perched above his brow, Brown is a familiar presence in the courthouse. He's been an attorney locally for more than three decades. Between hearings, the longtime wrestling coach for Mount Mansfield Union High School likes to sit by the front-door security checkpoint and joke with the officers. As he waited for the judge to draw jurors for Richards' trial, Brown bent the ear of a prosecutor about the new fish-finder he'd ordered for his lake camp.

His client, Richards, had made it to court that Monday and watched as Brown helped select a jury of her peers. She sat quietly, dressed in a plaid shirt and tan pants. She had eyes set deep in her face and a thin, birdlike nose.

Richards was still homeless, as she was at the time of her alleged crime. She had been sleeping in the ATM vestibule on St. Paul Street when a 69-year-old man in a motorized wheelchair came through the doors. Richards, prosecutors alleged, waited for the man to withdraw $100, then punched him, grabbed the cash and ran. The incident made the nightly news at the time, only to be supplanted by the next headline about surging disorder downtown. By the time her May 6 jury draw arrived, local television crews had long since moved on.

Judge Griffin called Richards' case first. Brown and Adams, the prosecutor, took turns probing potential jurors for biases.

Adams spent about 15 minutes asking basic questions, such as whether any jurors recognized Richards or the victim. She also asked jurors whether they could be impartial in a case involving an older victim with a physical impairment.

Brown's questions took less than five minutes.

"You understand that my client's obligation was just to show up here today and show up for this trial?" he asked. Then he cracked one of his jokes: "And she showed up this morning with a slightly aging, overweight wrestling coach. Does anybody on this panel hold that against my client?"

Judge Griffin and the attorneys soon agreed on 12 jurors and two alternates who would hear Richards' case two days later. The court broke for lunch, then picked three more juries, a tedious process that kept everyone at the courthouse half an hour past its sacrosanct closing time of 4:30 p.m.

While the day had been long, Griffin said from the bench, the successful selection of four separate juries was "awesome."

Later Monday

Miller's plea

As Richards waited for her jury to be drawn, the man seated next to her in the courtroom gallery was hunched over, plucking fuzz off the Velcro of his backpack.

Alexander Miller, 39, had chosen a different route than Richards' to resolve his case: He was here to take a plea deal on 16 charges that he'd been accumulating for more than two years.

A man in a T-shirt walks on a sidewalk next to a short brick wall
James Buck
Seven Days
Alexander Miller

These deals are designed to be good for everyone. They resolve cases more efficiently and with less risk than a trial. Defendants can trade the uncertainty of the pending charges for rules that discourage them from breaking the law and, in theory, help them get their lives on track.

Miller had had little luck on that front. His lawbreaking had been entwined with a drug addiction that began when he was a teenager. The lifelong Colchester resident had been in and out of the justice system ever since.

The path to resolve Miller's latest charges, including driving without a license and fleeing police officers, had been circuitous. The first case was filed in December 2021, after which he missed a series of court dates. Later, an episode of apparent drug-induced paranoia resulted in a trespassing charge. That prompted Miller's attorney, Brown, to ask the court whether his client was competent to stand trial. That issue took more than a year to sort out, in part because Miller showed up "impaired" to his first psychiatric evaluation.

Now, in exchange for pleading guilty to five charges, Miller could have 11 other charges dropped, including the one for trespass. He would serve up to three years on probation but could go to prison if he violated the terms of his suspended sentence.

Miller had come to court wearing a T-shirt and bedazzled cross necklace. There were bags under his eyes, and his feet were swollen and bandaged from festering wounds caused by xylazine, an animal tranquilizer now found in opioids. He'd begun his morning with an 8 a.m. trip to the opioid-treatment clinic in South Burlington, where he took his daily dose of methadone before the hearing in Judge Griffin's courtroom.

A man sits in a chair and fills out paperwork
James Buck
Seven Days
Alexander Miller

"Mr. Miller, is this your understanding of the agreement?" Griffin asked.

"Yes, your honor."

"And is this what you wish to do to resolve your cases?"

"Yes, your honor."

Miller shook his attorney's hand, gathered his backpack and took the elevator down to the clerks' counter to sign paperwork. Next, he hobbled outside and up Cherry Street to the state probation office.

He paused outside to smoke a Newport cigarette. Miller said he was happy to avoid prison, but he worried about slipping up.

"It looks like a great deal," he said, "but, I mean, it doesn't take much" to have a suspended sentence revoked. "You piss dirty, you pick up one charge for anything..."

He had spent years inside Vermont prisons, where nearly 60 percent of inmates today receive medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction. But returning to life outside isn't easy. When Miller finished his longest stint, 27 months, his mom took him to the University Mall in South Burlington so he could buy earrings. The wide, busy corridors overwhelmed him. His heart started racing. He said he "ran out of the mall, like a bitch."

Addiction treatment, Miller said, would help stop his lawbreaking behavior, though he acknowledged that previous stints in rehab hadn't led to long-term sobriety. The court process offered motivation and accountability, Miller said — yet he also felt ensnared in a system that was largely indifferent to his well-being. "Quite honestly, this is a business," he said. And in business, cash is king: "The person who has the money is going to get less of a sentence."

Miller stepped up to a window at the probation office that was flanked by overdose-reversal kits and a vase filled with condoms. A clerk handed him a thick packet of forms to fill out.

Nearly 45 minutes later, a woman ushered Miller through a metal detector, snapped two mug shot-style photos and led him into a dim conference room.

The woman, an intake officer, went through the lengthy list of rules that would govern Miller's life until May 7, 2027: Stay in treatment and counseling; meet regularly with his probation officer; notify the state of any changes of address or employment. He would be charged a $15-per-month supervision fee, she explained, which would likely be deducted from Miller's state tax refund, since he does not currently have any income. The intake officer gave Miller his next appointment date and sent him on his way.

Miller ordered an Uber back to his parents' home in Colchester. The ride cost $15.


To hold or not to hold

Long before they're settled, most criminal cases in Chittenden County begin in a hallway on the courthouse's second floor. Here, people charged with crimes sit on benches until a public defender calls their name.

On Tuesday morning, that task fell to attorney Sarah Varty. A few defendants were already waiting when she arrived before 8:30 a.m.

"Come on in!" she told a young man who was charged with unlawful mischief. "I'm Sarah."

Despite Varty's good cheer, coming to court can be "terrifying," as one woman in court that week described it. She'd been accused of driving with a suspended license. Prosecutors had agreed to divert her case to an alternative justice program, which would keep her criminal record clean. Still, she'd convinced herself that the judge would have her hauled to prison "in handcuffs."

That does happen, but in Vermont, it's rare. State law limits when defendants can be detained. Judges can issue cash bail to ensure someone doesn't flee prosecution, but George, the state's attorney, does not ask judges to do so, on the rationale that bail tends to punish people for being poor.

The vast majority of those held in prison until trial are accused of especially violent crimes, such as aggravated assault or attempted murder, according to Department of Corrections data. Of the 1,400 or so people who are locked up, more than 400 are awaiting trial.

A woman sits in black judge's robes
James Buck
Seven Days
Superior Court Judge Navah Spero

The question of how to restrict a defendant's rights is a tricky, politically fraught dilemma with risks all around. Defendants either sit for weeks or months in prison, crowding the correctional system, or walk free until trial, during which time they could accrue more charges or miss hearings, further bogging down the court system. Usually, a judge's solution is to set conditions that govern the accused's movement or behavior, relying on the threat of new charges or imprisonment to keep them in line.

Time and again, judges and attorneys struggled to carry out even basic judicial functions.

That responsibility fell on this Tuesday morning to Navah Spero, a judge appointed to the bench last fall. After a roughly monthlong orientation, she was assigned to the state's busiest criminal court for her initial, yearlong post.

Her Tuesday docket included some retail thefts, DUIs and charges of driving with suspended licenses — nothing that would typically warrant pretrial detention. She'd face a tougher call on Friday, when she had to decide whether to continue detaining a man who was charged with domestic assault and unlawful restraint of a woman with whom he was living in Shelburne. Steven Van Zandt appeared by video from prison. He hung his head as Spero announced that he would remain incarcerated until another hearing could be scheduled.

"I'm a disabled vet," Van Zandt pleaded with her. "I'd just like to go home and take care of my dog."

A woman in a purple blazer sits on a bench and works on a laptop
James Buck
Seven Days
Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George

For other defendants, the stakes were much lower. Chealsi Blouin, a 28-year-old woman, was in court by video to answer a charge of harassing and making threats against a caseworker at the Department for Children and Families. Blouin's cases had been winding through the system for months already. During an April hearing, when Blouin was arraigned on a separate charge for allegedly assaulting a DCF security guard, Judge Spero had ordered her to stay away from the office complex where the state employees worked.

Then Blouin's partner, a man who goes by Four Twenty Jake, spoke up. Blouin, he explained, loved the banana bread sold at Simply Divine Café, a coffee shop located in the same Williston office complex. He asked that Blouin be allowed to visit the café to purchase baked goods.

Spero granted the request. Deputy State's Attorney Adams soon filed an "emergency" petition to reverse the decision. State workers ate lunch at the café every day, Adams argued, which could put them in danger if Blouin were there.

Spero held a hearing on the matter in mid-April, taking sworn testimony about the ways in and out of the café and the frequency with which caseworkers patronized the place. The hearing spilled into a second day.

At the end, Spero reversed her earlier decision, but not before arguing with Adams over who was responsible for the unusual expenditure of court time. As Adams walked out of the hearing, she remarked that she'd never experienced anything quite like it over the course of her 15-year legal career.

Banana bread didn't come up during Blouin's May 9 arraignment, when she was again released on conditions. The baked goods matter had been settled, apparently, once and for all.

Wednesday morning

Trial day

Two Burlington police detectives approached a small blue tent on Wednesday morning and called out Richards' name. The tent was pitched on a narrow swath of grass between the sidewalk and Maple Street in a residential area near downtown. An umbrella poked through a hole in the tent.

Richards was huddled inside, cold and wet, alongside a woman with whom she shared the shelter. She'd overslept, she told police. She got dressed and rode with detectives to the courthouse, where she was now 30 minutes late for her felony trial. The cops gave her a package of Nutter Butter cookies during the ride.

Ashley Richards' tent on Maple Street in Burlington.
Sasha Goldstein
Seven Days
Ashley Richards' tent on Maple Street in Burlington.

The prosecutor, Adams, and Richards' court-appointed attorney, Brown, were milling about the hallway when word came that Richards had arrived. A few minutes later, she turned the corner, her hair in a messy bun, wearing loose beige pants, flip-flops and a reddish-brown plaid shirt.

She waited in the hall while the attorneys went into the courtroom to speak with Judge Griffin.

Ashley Richards
Burlington Police Department
Ashley Richards

Though Richards had been hauled into court, Brown told the judge, she wasn't in any condition to stand trial. She hadn't had any "medications" that morning, and Brown was concerned that his client would go through withdrawal, which could prejudice a jury and serve as grounds for a mistrial.

Instead, Brown said, he and Adams had just hashed out a plea deal that could avoid a trial — if he could convince Richards to accept it.

Griffin warned Brown that he would be "extremely reluctant" to consider any deal that didn't include prison time, given Richards' "challenges following court orders." Even if she did choose to move forward with the two-day trial, Griffin said, he planned to keep her locked up to ensure she appeared.

Brown left the courtroom to talk it over with his client.

He returned a few minutes later, sans Richards. She was outside, pacing the hallway.

"You don't need to follow me," she told court security.

"Fuck!" she yelled.

"She obviously does not want to go to jail today," Brown told the judge. "She's gonna be sick."

"The thing is, Harley," Adams said quietly to Brown, leaning between tables, "if she goes to jail, they're gonna put her on medically assisted treatment."

Just then, Richards came into the courtroom and took her seat next to Brown. She was willing to take the deal. She would plead guilty to larceny from a person, a lesser felony. At sentencing, the state would seek six months to five years in prison.

"I'm sorry for being late this morning," Richards told the judge. "I live in a tent. I don't have electricity. It's not the easiest.

"It's not that I don't want to be here," she continued. "I mean, this is my freedom. This is my life. I take this very serious."

Griffin said he would take her guilty plea now and schedule the sentencing hearing for Friday, two days later. In the meantime, Richards would be imprisoned at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility.

"I didn't prepare for this — this is not, I mean, this is my life," Richards said, growing distraught.

Richards wanted more time to think. Through her attorney, she asked Griffin for permission to leave the courthouse to smoke a cigarette. Griffin agreed, but only if Richards was shackled and escorted by a sheriff's deputy. He was still worried she might flee.

After her smoke, Richards returned. She pleaded guilty, then was taken directly to prison. The extra time before sentencing would give Adams and Brown a chance to resolve the 17 cases Richards had accumulated while her ATM robbery case was pending.

Out in the hallway, the victim, in a motorized wheelchair, had been waiting all morning to testify. Adams walked out and told the man that Richards had instead pleaded guilty. He could come back on Friday for Richards' sentencing.

Judges across the state are issuing more arrest warrants — nearly 1,600 in Chittenden County over the past 12 months.

Brown went downstairs to chat with the court security officers in the lobby. He felt a little queasy about how Richards' case had just played out. Brown wondered if he and the judicial system had done her any favors by allowing her to spiral for so long on the street.

"I don't know what the answers are," Brown said.

Wednesday afternoon

Failing to appear

Michael Dougherty was one of 18 people due to appear before Judge Michael Harris on Wednesday afternoon.

Whether Dougherty, 30, would show up was anyone's guess. He'd missed six hearings since being charged in May 2023 with failing to update his address on the state sex offender registry. In the meantime, Dougherty had been accused of punching an emergency department nurse while seeking treatment for suicidal thoughts. He also faced two counts of trespassing in City Hall Park, where he'd been banned after overdosing in a bathroom there twice in the same week.

To compel Dougherty to come to court, judges had used all of their tools, ranging from a mailed summons to a full-blown arrest warrant with cash bail.

When defendants miss their court dates, their cases can't get resolved. Spiking rates of homelessness and instability caused by drugs or mental illness have exacerbated the problem.

A man at the court clerk's counter after he was released from prison.
James Buck
Seven Days
A man at the court clerk's counter after he was released from prison.

Judges across the state are issuing more arrest warrants — nearly 1,600 in Chittenden County over the past 12 months, a 36 percent spike. Some defense attorneys speculate that judiciary leaders, under pressure to reduce the case backlog and crack down on repeat offenders, have directed judges to be less patient with people who miss court. Chief Superior Judge Thomas Zonay insists that's not true.

In the months before her trial, Ashley Richards had been jailed twice for missing court hearings. Both times, she'd been bailed out — once by her sister and, more recently, by the Vermont Freedom Fund. The donation-based activist group posted Richards' $500 bail in February.

The Freedom Fund currently posts bail exclusively for women, according to Lisa Barrett, a member of the group's steering committee. The fund tries to stay in touch with the women it helps, but Barrett said it had lost contact with Richards. On the Friday when Richards was scheduled to be sentenced, Barrett was also in the courthouse, posting bail for another woman as part of a drive in anticipation of Mother's Day.

The people whom the Freedom Fund bails out don't skip court hearings to flee prosecution, Barrett said. They miss court because their lives are in chaos or the judiciary doesn't do enough to ensure they receive notice — and they are punished with imprisonment as a result.

On Wednesday afternoon, a woman wearing an unbuttoned denim jacket that exposed her breasts sat quietly waiting for her 1:30 p.m. arraignment. But her hearing, public defender Sandra Lee discovered, had been postponed because her assigned lawyer was out of the office. No one had been able to tell the defendant, Jessica Huschke, who had no fixed address and no phone.

The previous afternoon, Kimberly Concannon-Bennett had stumbled through the front doors an hour after her hearing was scheduled to begin. She fidgeted and swayed. Courthouse security officers followed her, worrying aloud that she might overdose inside the building.

"I just wanted to come in so I didn't get arrested," Concannon-Bennett explained to a court clerk.

Judge Spero had already issued a $1,000 warrant for Concannon-Bennett's arrest, but upon her arrival, the judge, the state's attorney's office and the public defenders scrambled to hear her case. During the hearing, Concannon-Bennett rocked back and forth and spun in her chair. She said she had a headache. She began to cry.

"She's clearly not in any position to go forward," Spero said, before reluctantly accepting a not-guilty plea to a cocaine possession charge. The judge postponed a more complex matter in Concannon-Bennett's docket for a date in June.

"You need to come on time," Spero admonished. "You need to be in a better condition."

James Buck
Seven Days

Meanwhile, Dougherty managed to appear for his Wednesday afternoon hearing, but his cases remained on hold. He had been waiting nearly six months to meet with a psychiatrist who could evaluate whether he is competent to stand trial. Last year the state Department of Mental Health contracted with an outside agency to conduct the evaluations by video, at a cost of more than $3,000 each.

The switch has largely quashed wait times that were averaging a year or more. But the department only schedules an appointment if a defense attorney can quickly confirm a client's availability at a proposed time.

That approach doesn't account for someone like Dougherty, who has no phone or address and experiences memory problems.

"It's hard for me to get to actual appointments," Dougherty said as he left the courthouse and walked to the Church Street Marketplace. "It sucks, it really does."



When Friday morning came around, Judge Griffin had no reason to wonder whether Richards would show up to receive her sentence. He'd put her in prison to avoid the fiasco of her trial two days earlier.

He was wrong.

Brown delivered the bad news: Richards was likely "detoxing pretty severely," so the sheriff's office could not transport her to court.

Griffin, once again without a defendant, had no choice but to reschedule the hearing for the following week.

Richards would make it to that one, at which she would settle all of her pending cases in exchange for a sentence of six months to five years in prison.

Richards had previously served two years, from 2008 to 2010, for selling drugs. But, Griffin observed at sentencing, her record had been clean until 2022. She had only dealt drugs back then, she told Griffin. In the past few years, she started using them.

"My life's been shit ever since," Richards told the judge.

She asked Griffin if he'd ever spent time in prison himself.

"It's some serious PTSD," Richards told him. "Maybe you should look at us a little more humanely and not as just criminals."

"All I can say is this is about as humane a sentence as I can imagine," Griffin replied.

Maybe you should look at us a little more humanely and not as just criminals.
Ashley Richards

Despite the chaos of Richards' case, the week of May 6 had managed to be a productive one at the Judge Edward J. Costello Courthouse. The court had disposed of 140 cases, twice as many as were filed. But court staff, attorneys and judges were tired. They hoped Friday afternoon wouldn't bring any more surprises.

"It makes me nervous that it's been so quiet this morning," Judge Spero said from the bench shortly before lunch.

Sure enough, that afternoon, Essex police arrested a man named Daniel Dennis on an outstanding warrant and delivered him to court. But Dennis, who was accused of punching an emergency department nurse, insisted his name was not Daniel Dennis.

Officers and the public defender, Lee, suspected that Dennis was mentally ill. The court called in a Howard Center clinician to screen him to figure out whether he needed to go to a hospital.

Two hours later, Dennis appeared in court handcuffed and shackled, wearing shorts and a hoodie. The clinician concluded that Dennis needed a full psychiatric evaluation. Judge Harris postponed the arraignment and ordered Dennis to be transferred to the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital.

A shackled defendant in court.
James Buck
Seven Days
A shackled defendant in court.

The unexpected hearing left little time for the one remaining case on Harris' docket.

A man named Neeraj Bharati arrived at the courtroom from prison, hopeful that he would not return. The night before, his attorney, John St. Francis, had reached a plea deal with the state to resolve drug and burglary charges, as well as an allegation that he'd violated an abuse-prevention order. Once a judge accepted the deal, Bharati could be released from prison, having received credit for 89 days already served.

Bharati's family sat in the courtroom that afternoon, waiting to take him home.

But the prosecutor, Kelton Olney, didn't want to move forward. His office hadn't yet told the victim about the deal. The case wasn't Olney's — he was covering for a colleague who was out of the office. The case was unfamiliar to Harris, too. Bharati required a translator, which slowed the hearing. The end of the day was drawing near.

Harris decided to reschedule the hearing for the end of the month, the earliest date available. He apologized to Bharati for the delay.

"It's an unfortunate situation, given the volume of our docket," Harris said.

Bharati stood up and shuffled out with the deputies who'd brought him in. They took him back to prison. He'd have to wait for another day in court. ■

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