Jack Sawyer with defense attorney Kelly Green in court
The Vermont Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled in favor of a teenager accused of planning a massacre at Fair Haven Union High School, saying there is not enough evidence to justify holding him without bail.
The ruling could lead to Jack Sawyer, 18, being released from prison while he awaits trial. Further, it may indicate that prosecutors will struggle to prove their high-profile case against him.
Defense attorneys representing Sawyer, who authorities say planned a Parkland, Fla.-style shooting, have argued that there is not enough evidence to charge him with attempted murder. There is a big difference, they contend, between planning a crime and attempting to carry it out.
Prosecutors charged Sawyer with three counts of attempted murder and one count of attempted aggravated assault with a weapon.
Last month, defense attorneys sought to have the charges dismissed, and to have an order holding him without bail reversed. After two days of hearings, Judge Thomas Zonay ruled in favor of prosecutors on the bail question, but he did not rule on the motion to dismiss the case.
But Wednesday, a three-justice panel of the Supreme Court agreed with Sawyer's attorneys on the bail question. They unanimously reversed Zonay's decision, sending it back to the judge to reconsider bail.
"Each of [Sawyer's] actions was a preparatory act, and not an act undertaken in the attempt to commit a crime," the justices wrote. "Therefore, as a matter of law, defendant’s acts did not fall within the definition of an attempt."
That signals trouble for the underlying charges alleging attempted crimes. Sawyer's attorney, Kelly Green, said she believes the Supreme Court decision indicates that the charges filed against Sawyer cannot stand.
"The law of attempt is clear and has been for at least 112 years," Green said. She said she'll refile a motion to dismiss the charges. Generally, "attempt" charges must include an act "towards the commission" of the offense in Vermont law. Prosecutors assert that Sawyer's purchase of a 12-gauge shotgun days before his arrest meets that requirement. They also introduced evidence that he made detailed plans to shoot up his school in his personal journal.
“The state is incredibly disappointed in the Supreme Court’s decision and interpretation of Vermont law," Rutland County State's Attorney Rosemary Kennedy said in an email Wednesday evening. "The State believes that Mr. Sawyer did commit an ‘overt act’ in satisfaction of the attempt statute, and as determined by the trial court judge."
In an unusual step, justices seemed to invite lawmakers to revise laws surrounding "attempt" crimes.
"This court has consistently held that preparation alone does not satisfy the high bar required to prove an attempt," justices wrote. "The legislature is tasked with enacting such laws as the people of Vermont think necessary. This court is bound to apply the law in agreement with statute and this Court’s own earlier decisions. The Legislature can, if it chooses, deviate from this long-established standard by passing a law revising the definition of attempt."