In an unusual move, the Vermont Supreme Court today overturned the murder conviction of a Windsor County man who has spent three years in prison for a shooting he has long claimed was self-defense.
In a 5-0 opinion, justices ruled that a trial judge improperly excluded key evidence that could have bolstered Kyle Bolaski's claim of self-defense in the 2008 shooting of Vincent Tamburello, who had charged at a group of Bolaski's friends with a small axe. Additionally, the court said the judge gave improper instructions to jurors that made the murder conviction more likely.
Currently serving a 25-year-to-life sentence, Bolaski may soon be freed from a Kentucky prison in which Vermont houses long-term inmates. Bolaski, 30, was free on bail before his 2011 trial. With the case effectively reset to pre-trial status, courts traditionally revert to the prior bail status.
It is unclear when a new trial would occur, though a hearing on Bolaski's bail status will likely come much sooner.
Members of Bolaski's family in Chester and Tamburello's family outside Boston did not immediately respond to messages.
Today's decision was a dramatic twist in a six-year old case that has been fraught with controversy from the start.
Bolaski fired two shots from a .30-06 rifle at Tamburello during an August 2008 fracas in broad daylight on a softball field in Chester. Tamburello, a Boston native who had recently moved to Vermont, had been feuding with a group of Bolaski’s friends for days over a disagreement about stolen marijuana. The victim had no prior contact with Bolaski.
Wielding a splitting maul, Tamburello charged at a group that included Bolaski, chased Bolaski back to Bolaski's truck, and began pummeling the truck with the axe. Under highly disputed circumstances that were at the heart of the trial, Bolaski grabbed his rifle, shot Tamburello once in the leg and a second time in the back. Tamburello, 32, bled to death.
Prosecutors argued that Tamburello had been retreating from Bolaski when he was killed. Defense attorneys made the point that Bolaski rightly feared for his life and was in a state of high anxiety when he fired two quick shots.
The initial prosecutor in the case, former Windsor County State's Attorney Robert Sand, reduced the murder charge to voluntary manslaughter, saying there was insufficient evidence to prove murder. The Tamburello family was enraged and lobbied to have Sand removed from the case. Eventually, Franklin County Deputy State's Attorney John Lavoie took over — and reinstated the murder charge.
A jury took only two hours to return a guilty verdict after a two-week trial in Windsor Superior Court.
The Vermont Supreme Court's decision to reverse the conviction is based in part on information that jurors never heard during the trial. Bolaski's attorneys sought to show jurors medical evidence indicating that Tamburello was suicidal shortly before the incident and had several drugs in his system at the time of his death.
Judge Patricia Zimmerman rejected that request, preventing jurors from hearing that evidence.
Today the justices said Zimmerman, who has since retired, was wrong.
"In this case, the victim's conduct at the ball field, and particularly in the last minutes before the killing, is relevant to the defendant's self-defense claim," justices wrote in a 23-page opinion. "If the victim's state of mind is, in turn, relevant to the victim's conduct...it meets the relevancy requirement."
The court also ruled that Zimmernan erred when she failed to explain to jurors that prosecutors were obligated to prove that Bolaski did not act out of "passion or provocation" — which Bolaski argued was exactly what happened — in order to return a guilty verdict on second-degree murder.
"We conclude that the jury instruction caused a miscarriage of justice that affected the fairness of the trial," the court wrote. "We cannot uphold the resulting verdict."
Bolaski's attorney at the trial, Kevin Griffin, has since been appointed a judge and is currently serving in Chittenden County.