August 28th, 2019

Dismissal of three legal insanity cases causes stir in VT

Thomas Powell, Ph.D, founding partner, Vermont Forensic Assessment, PLLC

Thomas Powell, Ph.D, founding partner, Vermont Forensic Assessment, PLLC

Three cases—two murder and one attempted murder—were dismissed in Vermont’s Chittenden County by State’s Attorney Sarah George as a result of legal insanity defenses.

Some called her decision to dismiss into question, specifically Governor Phil Scott who asked Attorney General T.J. Donovan to review these cases. George, however, felt the governor’s reaction was insulting and set a bad precedent. In a tweet in early June responding to Scott’s request for review, George made it clear that she feels his move is politically motivated.

“It is awful that our mental health agencies are failing us, but real leadership requires digging in and fixing problems,” she stated, “not pointing fingers elsewhere and undermining the judicial system’s integrity.”

She added that she made a decision based on all of the facts and evidence. Each of the defendants met the criteria necessary to be in the care of the Department of Mental Health (DMH). She said Vermont’s laws allow the DMH to keep them until they are no longer a risk to themselves or others. She wrote, “That is where all of our energy and resources should be focused.”

Thomas Powell, Ph.D, founding partner of the Vermont Forensic Assessment, PLLC, agreed with George’s dismissal. As far as he’s concerned, she made the proper move under the circumstances.

“George was wise,” he said. “There were serious questions of sanity and if these individuals were acquitted, they would be walking out the door. She did what she could to keep Vermont’s citizens safe by not setting them free.”

All three cases occurred within a two-year period.

In 2015, Veronica Lewis shot her firearms instructor. He survived although federal charges have recently been brought against Lewis for unlawfully possessing a stolen firearm.

In 2017, Louis Fortier stabbed a man to death and Aita Gurung killed his wife with a meat cleaver while also severely injuring his mother-in-law.

George’s dismissal of these three cases is a stark contrast to her successful prosecution of Steven Bourgoin, who killed five teenagers in a wrong-way crash in 2016. While Bourgoin pleaded legal insanity, a psychiatric expert considered him sane at the time of the crime.

In a recent statement, NAMI Vermont supported the systems that provide comprehensive, long-term mental health care and supervision from the DMH for individuals who are found “not guilty by reason of insanity” or where cases may be dismissed because of the insanity defense.

Typically, a defendant is placed in the care of a mental health institution instead of incarceration.

It’s been frequently cited that treatment programs for the mentally ill may actually take far longer than the incarceration a standard guilty plea might have. Powell strongly disagreed.

“The thought that if you are found not guilty by reason of insanity, that you spend more time in a mental institution than you would if you went to jail, is outdated and not true,” he said. “There aren’t enough beds. We’ve had institutions that have closed in this state. Prison sentences are much longer than they used to be.”

The dismissed cases in Vermont have prompted a larger discussion as to how the mental health system plays a role in the state’s justice system. In July, the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee was set to meet in Montpelier to discuss the issue and possible changes in future legislative sessions.

“George did not criminalize their mental illness,” noted Powell. “Instead, she aimed them at a system that could actually help them.”

By Eileen Weber

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