Gov. Phil Scott has asked Attorney General T.J. Donovan to review the decision to dismiss charges in three major cases involving insanity defenses, two of which involved gruesome murders in broad daylight in Burlington.
Scott said he was “at a loss as to the logic or strategy” behind the decision by Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George not to prosecute the defendants in the three cases, all of whom claimed they were insane at the time of their crimes.
“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,” Scott wrote in his letter.
In an interview with Seven Days Thursday, George pushed back on the governor’s critique.
“It always frustrates me when individuals make statements about a decision I’ve made without all the facts,” George said, adding that she did not know if the governor had read her press releases or the court documents outlining her rationale for the dismissals.
“This was not an easy decision,” George said. “This was not something I took lightly. This is something I lost a lot of sleep over. And I would never have done it if I felt like there was another option."
Donovan called the governor’s letter “an extraordinary request.”
“I understand the issue of public safety, but I also understand the issue of due process,” Donovan said. “The fact is that Sarah George is an independently elected prosecutor and it’s her case, and it’s not my role to second-guess elected prosecutors who are litigating their cases.”
Nevertheless, since public safety concerns have been raised, both by the dismissals and the governor’s letter, Donovan said, it’s his responsibility, as both the state’s top law enforcement officer and counsel for the Department of Mental Health to ensure that the public trusts how such cases are handled.
“There are no easy answers on this,” Donovan said. “The fact of the matter is, we have a problem, so let’s solve it.”
George announced on Tuesday that she was dropping charges in the three cases because she had no evidence to refute defense claims that the defendants were insane.
She dismissed charges against Aita Gurung, who was arraigned on a first-degree murder charge in 2017 for stabbing his wife to death with a meat cleaver; Louis Fortier, who was charged with first-degree murder in 2017 for the fatal Church Street stabbing; and Veronica Lewis, who was charged with attempted first-degree murder in 2015 for shooting her firearms instructor multiple times. He survived.
Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo and Mayor Miro Weinberger both issued statements after George’s decision expressing concern about the public safety implications of the decision.
"On the heels of these decisions, the State must do everything within its power and jurisdiction to ensure the safety of Burlingtonians and prevent these individuals from returning to our streets and neighborhoods," Weinberger wrote in his statement.
Scott noted that the Department of Mental Health “has no legal authority to continue to keep individuals hospitalized” when they no longer meet the legal standard of needing hospital care, and suggested the public might be endangered by the decisions.
“The top priority of government is public safety, and I certainly don't take this obligation lightly,” Scott said. “A civil society cannot function properly when a heinous violent crime is not properly adjudicated, and the public is put at risk."
George said she had spoken previously with Donovan, her predecessor as Chittenden County’s top prosecutor, and “he was aware of these cases and decision we were facing.”
“I certainly can understand if the AG wants to review these cases,” George said. “he is of course, welcome to do that; it is within his jurisdiction.”