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Gov. Scott Voices Concern After 3 Major Chittenden County Cases Dismissed

Steps leading up to a courthouse.
Emily Corwin
VPR File
The Chittenden County State's Attorney Office, located at the Costello Courthouse on Cherry Street, in Burlington, dismissed three cases Tuesday - prompting Gov. Phil Scott to voice his concerns in a letter to Attorney General TJ Donovan.

Following the recent dismissal of three pending cases by the Chittenden County State's Attorney, Gov. Phil Scott is asking Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan to intervene.

"I respectfully request you conduct a thorough review to determine if your office should re-file any, or all, of these charges," Scott wrote in a letter Wednesday to Donovan.

Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George announced the dismissal of three "major crimes" cases Tuesday. In a press release, George wrote that the counsel for each of the three defendants planned to use an insanity defense.

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

Two of the dismissed cases occurred in Burlington in 2017. In March 2017, Louis Fortier allegedly stabbed another man to death in the city's downtown. In the second case, from October 2017, Aita Gurung allegedly killed his wife with a meat cleaver and tried to kill his mother-in-law.

The third was the case of Veronica Lewis, who was accused of shooting her firearms instructor in 2015.

"It is the State's expectation," George wrote in her press release, that the three defendents would remain in the custody of the Vermont Department of Mental Health "until the community can be assured that they are no longer a risk of harm to themselves or others and can also assure the community that the interests of justice have been served."

But in his letter to Donovan, the governor challenged this expectation. Scott wrote:

"From a layperson's perspective, and certainly as Governor, I'm at a loss as to the logic or strategy behind this decision to drop all charges — especially considering the fact that the State's Attorney is aware the Department of Mental Health has no legal authority to continue to keep individuals hospitalized when they do not meet the legal criteria for hospital level of care. These cases are among the most violent crimes committed in Vermont in recent memory, and with their dismissal, there is no longer a possibility of supervision by the Department of Corrections or conditions of release to protect Vermonters."

"It appears that the attorney general would have the ability to take another look, if he was willing," Scott told VPR on Thursday, "and so I wrote the letter to him stating that — what I think is appropriate for this situation."

In a phone interview, Donovan said his office would review the cases, but will not commit to refiling any charges.

"Sarah George is an excellent prosecutor … and she made a decision," Donovan said. "It is one thing to disagree with her. … It’s an entirely different thing to take the case and refile it."

That's what Scott was asking for, Donovan said — "and I think before you do that, you have to do your due diligence," he added.

George defended her decision in an interview with VPR Friday morning, saying the governor’s letter was “insulting” and not only called her judgment into question, but also the work done by other attorneys and law enforcement.

She said the state didn't have evidence to refute the insanity defense claims made in each case.

“I don't believe that I, as an officer of the court, can ethically put a case in front of a jury that I know I don't have evidence to support and cross my fingers that they'll find the person guilty,” George said. “That is not how the criminal justice system is supposed to work.”

George also questioned the motives behind the letter.

“If it was really for public safety, then either the governor or the commissioner of public safety would have called me, would have emailed me, would have met with me, would have talked with me … None of that happened for either of them.” George said. “I think this came on the heels of an announcement that TJ [Donovan] might run for governor and I think that it was entirely political.”

Donovan, a Democrat, is reportedly mulling a run for governor in 2020,according to VTDigger.

In Burlington, where the two homicides took place, Police Chief Brandon del Pozo told VPR Wednesday that his main concern is public safety and if these people are "so mentally ill that they cannot stand trial … then they ought to be institutionalized."

But del Pozo said it’s not clear if these individuals will remain in the custody of the Department of Mental Health.

“So I think there’s a community that probably would be reassured by some clarity about the process that’s going to happen,” he said.

The Vermont Department of Mental Health wouldn't comment of the status of the individuals in the dismissed cases, citing federal privacy regulations. But speaking generally, Commissioner Sarah Squirrell said people could be discharged from the state psychatric hospital and still be under supervision of the department.

"You could essentially be discharged on, for example, an order of non-hospitalization which is linked to your mental illness, to ensure that you will contine to recieve and access treatment in a less restrictive setting," Squirrell said.

Update 06/07/2019 2:35 p.m. This post was updated after VPR spoke with Sarah George.

Bob Kinzel and Meg Malone contributed to this post.

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