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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Montpelier Debrief: Debate Over 'Attempted' Crimes, Plus Reasons For Holcombe's Departure

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate President Tim Ashe have a plan to avoid a government shutdown on July 1st if lawmakers are still at an impasse with Governor Phil Scott over property tax rates
Meg Malone
VPR File
"Seven Days" reporter Alicia Freese joins VPR's Bob Kinzel to debrief some of what's unfolded in Montpelier recently around debate over what's considered an "attempt" under the law and surrounding Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe's recent resignation.

Lawmakers were busy this week considering different ways to change Vermont's criminal justice laws in an effort to thwart future cases of mass violence.

And new information has emerged as to why former Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe resigned earlier this month.

Seven Days reporter Alicia Freese has been following both of these stories, and joined Vermont Edition to discuss the latest developments.

Listen to that conversation above.

What It Means To "Attempt" A Crime In Vermont

Jack Sawyer — the Poultney man accused of planning a thwarted shooting at Fair Haven Union High School — was being held without bail on a charge of attempting to commit first-degree murder, but the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the prosecutor in the case didn't really have probable cause to bring that charge and the court overturned that bail restriction.

Meanwhile, Gov. Phil Scott is asking lawmakers to quickly make changes in state law so that situations like this one can be effectively prosecuted in the future. 

"This is all a response to, I think, a high level of concern in the Fair Haven community about the release of Jack Sawyer," Freese explained. "And the governor asked, after the Supreme Court decision, he asked lawmakers to close what he called a 'loophole'  and really what he wants is for it to be easier for prosecutors to charge somebody with attempting a crime.

"And right now, you need to have some sort of overt step taken toward committing that crime. The governor was talking about lowering the bar and allowing prosecutors to charge people earlier. The concern is that under the current statute, Jack Sawyer would have had to march up to that school and have his finger on the trigger practically in order for a prosecutor to get that charge to stick."

More from VPR — Fearing For Their Lives, Fair Haven Students Demand Action From Lawmakers [April 18]

Lawmakers could change the definition of what it means to attempt to commit a crime — as Freese mentioned, right now it is an "overt" action and some people would like to change it to "taking substantial steps." However that approach faced resistance from the ACLU and the defender general, Freese explained.

But Sen. Dick Sears, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is looking at the possibility of making some amendments to the state's domestic terrorism laws.

"One step would be really simple: it would just be adding to the definition of a weapon of mass destruction, adding a firearm in there. And they're also talking about changing the definition of domestic terrorism — it would include threatening or taking a substantial step, that language in there again, to commit a mass shooting or other incredibly destructive crime.

"That has raised concerns too, because the ACLU would say if you make threatening to do something a crime, you're potentially infringing on the right to free speech."

Freese notes that though if any changes are made to the law, that wouldn't retroactively impact the Sawyer case.

"I think everybody feels a lot of pressure to do something, but there's also a lot of concern about messing it up," Freese said.

The Departure Of Vermont's Education Secretary

New information surfaced about why former Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe suddenly resigned earlier this month. Scott said Holcombe's was "a personal decision," and not the result of disagreements over education policy.

But in her reporting, Freese discovered policy disagreements do indeed seem to be central to Holcombe's departure from the administration.

"One of the fundamental disagreements also happens to be one of the key flashpoints in the Statehouse right now," Freese said, "which is the governor called for, he's been calling for cost containment — you know, reducing school spending — for a while now. And the secretary supported him in those calls for a while, also.

"Where the disagreement took place was after Town Meeting Day when school budgets passed overwhelmingly — the budgets came in below what the governor asked them to come in at — and then the administration was still calling on state policymakers, but they were saying there need to be more cost containment.

"And what I learned in my reporting is that Rebecca Holcombe felt very strongly that that was disrespectful of the process but also undemocratic if you were going to take actions that would affect budgets that have already been passed by the voters."

Read Freese's Seven Days article, 'Principled Stand? Why Vermont's Former Ed Chief Split With Scott' [April 18]

Earlier this month, Scott put out a letter to the State Board of Education that laid out his suggestions for what to look for in choosing the next education secretary.

"How it works is the state board offers three or more candidates to the governor and he chooses from among those," Freese explained. "So he listed his criteria, gave it out to the state board and everybody else, and said you know, it's really important for the person to have managerial experience — didn't necessarily have to be in education. 

"And that caveat really upset a lot of people in the education community. ... [T]he secretary of education, under state law, is required to have experience in the education realm. But, you know, I think that was Scott sending a message that he really wants somebody who can rein in spending and maybe who has fewer ties to the education community." 

Listen to the conversation with Freese above. Broadcast on Friday, April 20, 2018 during the noon hour; rebroadcast during the 7 p.m. hour.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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