A Burlington man accused of murdering his wife with a meat cleaver in 2017 appeared in court on Friday — one day after Attorney General T.J. Donovan refiled charges in a case that the county prosecutor dismissed because of concerns about the defendant’s sanity.
In handcuffs and leg shackles, Aita Gurung spent the hourlong session staring straight ahead as prosecutors and his defense team argued about whether he should be kept in the custody of the state’s Department of Mental Health or Department of Corrections as his case progresses.
He’s been kept in a "locked, secure facility" since his arrest in October 2017, first at the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin and recently at a facility in Middlesex, his public defender, Sandra Lee, said during the arraignment. She argued for keeping him there.
“It is uncontested that he suffers from a severe mental illness, judge,” Lee said. “And the humane, fair way to address this issue is to have close court oversight and allow the court the opportunity to determine if jail is really necessary before putting him through that for charges that were dismissed previously by the State of Vermont.”
But the state, represented by assistant attorneys general John Waszak and Molly Gray, successfully argued for the DOC to take over Gurung’s care. Judge Gregory Rainville ordered Gurung to be held without bail. The defendant will undergo a mental health evaluation before authorities decide where to keep him.
Because of the unique circumstances of the case, the arraignment took longer than is the norm. Gurung, who moved to Vermont as a Bhutanese refugee, required a court interpreter. Each speaker could only utter a few words before having to pause so they could be translated into Gurung's language. His attorneys, Lee and Bryan Dodge, entered not guilty pleas to the charges of murder and attempted murder. Rainville set another hearing for Wednesday.
Bryan Dodge, standing, Sandra Lee and Aita Gurung (in red)
Donovan, who served as Chittenden County state’s attorney before winning election as the state’s AG, watched the courtroom proceedings with members of his staff. The attorneys from his office seemed prepared to argue the merits of the case because it had been in the court system for two years before his successor, Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George, dropped the charges on May 31.
The defense attorneys were, too. After the hearing, an exasperated Lee told reporters that Donovan’s refiling of the charges was a political move that overlooked serious legal deficiencies in the state’s case. Multiple experts had deemed Gurung insane at the time that he allegedly hacked his wife to death with a meat cleaver outside of their Old North End home. His mother-in-law was also seriously injured in the attack.
Days after George dismissed the charges, Gov. Phil Scott asked Donovan to review the case, along with two others involving insanity defenses that George had dropped. On Thursday, Donovan’s office announced he’d refiled the charges.
Lee said Gurung had responded well to treatment but remains suicidal. She worried the increased stress of a trial, and potential interruption of his treatment, could harm his progress.
“This case, after being dismissed by the State of Vermont back in May, is now coming back with nothing different — same affidavit, same charges. That’s it,” Lee said. “Honestly, I don’t understand the decision other than politics.”
Attorney General T.J. Donovan addressing the media
Asked if his decision was a political stunt, Donovan responded simply: “We’re talking about a murder.”
He justified his decision by saying “the public has a right to know what happened, and we need a true and accurate record as to what happened.
“A dismissal does not accomplish that,” he said.
Donovan argued that a jury should determine whether Gurung was sane or not at the time of the alleged crime. He said relatives of the victims wanted “the laws of our government to bring justice to their family.”
“Vermonters get to weigh in on this, the community gets to speak because that is how our legal system is designed, that is how the process plays out,” he said. “We believe this case should follow the process.”
Donovan said he did not intend to undermine George, a colleague and friend for whom he said he has the “utmost respect.” He admitted that he would not have refiled the charges if Scott hadn’t asked for a review of the case.
“What I did not like was that you had a debate among elected officials that eroded the public’s trust in our criminal justice system,” the AG said.
Donovan said the other two cases Scott asked him to review are still pending.
George, who did not attend Friday’s hearing, issued a written statement afterward.
“My justification for dismissal is very clear, as documented in my dismissal letter as well as many subsequent interviews,” she wrote. “My dismissal was based on all of the available evidence, our current laws, and my ethical obligations as an Officer of the Court. It does not appear that any of these factors have changed in any way since my dismissal.”