Defense blasts Donovan for refiling charges in murder case

Published: 9/15/2019 9:58:36 PM
Modified: 9/15/2019 9:58:32 PM

BURLINGTON — The defense attorney in a high-profile murder case said Friday she believes politics are the reason Attorney General TJ Donovan refiled charges against her client after they were dropped by State’s Attorney Sarah George.

Sandra Lee represents Aita Gurung, who is accused of murdering his wife with a meat cleaver and severely injuring his mother-in-law. George dismissed the charges against Gurung in May after she determined she would be unable to rebut Gurung’s planned insanity defense.

“This case, after being dismissed by the state of Vermont back in May, is now coming back with nothing different — same affidavit, same charges,” Lee said. “So I honestly don’t understand the decision other than politics.”

Gurung pleaded not guilty to the refiled charges of murder and attempted murder in state court in Burlington on Friday, and Lee informed the court Gurung would utilize the insanity defense again. He likely is heading to prison pending an evaluation at a mental health facility before a follow-up hearing Wednesday.

Donovan, who is openly mulling a 2020 campaign for governor, dismissed Lee’s assertion that the charges were political.

“You’re talking about a murder,” he said.

Gurung allegedly killed his wife, Yogeswari Khadka, 32, and seriously injured his mother-in-law, Thulsa Rimal, on Oct. 12, 2017, at their residence in the Old North End of Burlington. He had been released from the University of Vermont Medical Center earlier that day after a week-long stay for a mental health evaluation.

Donovan said that he would not have brought the charges back against Gurung if Gov. Phil Scott had not asked him to review the charges. Scott said he was “at a loss as to the logic or strategy” to George’s decision to dismiss the cases.

Donovan said Friday that he refiled the case due to the severity of the crime. He said he also believed the question of sanity should be answered through the jury process and said a dismissal could allow the case to be sealed, which he said would harm the public’s right to know.

“We spoke to the victim’s family earlier this week, and they said one thing to us — that they wanted the laws of our government to bring justice to their family,” Donovan said. “That’s what we intend to do.”

George continued to defend her decision to dismiss the charges in a statement Friday, saying she had made her justification for the dismissals clear.

“My dismissal was based on all of the available evidence, our current laws, and my ethical obligations as an Officer of the Court,” she said. “It does not appear that any of these factors have changed in any way since my dismissal.”

George said in June she would be surprised if Donovan decided to refile the cases and said she believed doing so would put unnecessary strain on the victims and their families as the state did not have the evidence to rebut the insanity defense.

Donovan said he “took no pleasure” in taking the step of reversing a decision made by an independently elected state’s attorney, a move believed to be unprecedented.

“I think anytime that you have that political debate among elected officials playing out on Twitter, that erodes the public trust,” Donovan said, referring to George’s criticisms of Scott on Twitter.

“People want us to do our job, they want to make sure that public safety officials are keeping them safe, and that the process works,” he said.

But the attorney general acknowledged that deference to state’s attorneys was “crucial to maintain public trust in our democratic systems and institutions,” while still deciding to evaluate the cases due to the public safety implications in June.

Donovan said he had the “utmost respect” for George and thought she was doing a “tremendous job” as state’s attorney.

George has defended her decision to dismiss the charges against Gurung and to dismiss a murder charges against Louis Fortier, charged with a murder on Church Street in Burlington in March 2017 and Veronica Lewis, charged with attempted murder for shooting her firearms instructor in 2015 in Westford.

In the Gurung case, George hired an expert to attempt to rebut the insanity defense after a court-appointed expert ruled he was insane at the time of the attack. But an expert hired by the state also found that he was, in fact, insane.

The court-appointed expert, Dr. Paul Cotton, determined Gurung was suffering from schizophrenia at the time of the attack, and Dr. Albert Drukteinis, the state’s expert, determined Gurung was psychotic at the time of the attack and was hearing voices telling him to kill his wife.

Donovan said that despite the expert testimony, he believed a jury should make the determination on whether or not Gurung was insane at the time of the attack.

“The experts present expert testimony, that’s evidence,” he said. “And then the jury, the community, gets to weigh that evidence, and they get to make the determination. This is no different than any other case.”

Hold Without Bail

Judge Gregory Rainville ordered that Gurung be held without bail remanding him to the custody of the Department of Corrections. Lee said she believes Rainville’s order means Gurung will be heading to jail prior to a more complete hearing on the matter Sept. 18.

Gurung had been moved into the custody of the Department of Mental Health at a facility in Middlesex, a step below the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital, in recent weeks, Lee said.

After Rainville’s ruling Friday, Gurung will be heading to the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin for an evaluation.

If Gurung is determined to not need the level of care provided by the facility in Berlin (a conclusion the Department of Mental Health reached recently before moving him to the Middlesex facility), he will be headed to prison.

Rainville said since the charges had been refiled, he had to evaluate them based on just the documents in the “new” case file, not the more than year and a half of prior litigation in the case.

Donovan said the state would be able to continue to provide Gurung care while in prison.

“We’re making sure that we’re treating Mr. Gurung with respect, making sure he receives the medical care that he’s entitled to, but at the same time, making sure that the rule of law is followed, and the victims voices are heard,” Donovan said.

During the hearing, Lee had asked that Rainville allow Gurung to remain at the facility he has been at before next week’s hearing.

“This action being rebrought is basically an end run against all the orders that were already issued by this court regarding this exact same case,” Lee said.

One of those orders mandated Gurung be put in custody of the Department of Mental Health for treatment, not the Department of Corrections.

“As a society and as the state of Vermont, we are a humane state, we believe that people should be treated when it’s clear that they are insane, even when horrific crimes occur,” Lee said.

Lee said she was “absolutely” concerned about Gurung’s condition between now and the hearing Wednesday, especially since he was a suicide risk.

“The manner in which this case even came back is very disturbing, and should be upsetting to any citizen who believes in fairness and justice,” Lee said.

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