Vermont judge rules man in cleaver killing not competent to stand trial

  • Aita Gurung appears in Vermont Superior Court in Burlington on Dec. 20, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger GLENN RUSSELL

Published: 1/3/2020 10:03:49 PM
Modified: 1/3/2020 10:16:15 PM

Aita Gurung, the man accused of killing his wife with a meat cleaver in Burlington in 2017, was ruled not competent to stand trial this week, a finding that indefinitely delays the continuation of legal proceedings against him.

Attorney General TJ Donovan refiled charges against Gurung in September after State’s Attorney Sarah George dismissed the charges against him. George determined that the state would be unable to successfully counter Gurung’s insanity defense in a trial as two doctors found that he was insane at the time of the crime.

Unlike insanity, competency to stand trial can change over time, as it relates to the defendant’s current understanding of the charges against him.

Judge Samuel Hoar issued the competency ruling Tuesday.

Dr. Jonathan Weker evaluated Gurung in October, after Donovan refiled the charges. Weker determined that Gurung does not have the mental capability to understand the murder and attempted murder charges against him, meaning that he is not competent to stand trial.

In a Dec. 20 competency hearing, Weker argued that Gurung’s mental health had worsened after he was moved from a Department of Mental Health facility into prison, after Donovan refiled the charges against him.

The state called Dr. Catherine Lewis, a forensic psychiatrist and professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut, who reviewed Gurung’s medical records.

Lewis did not evaluate Gurung herself but said she believed his understanding of the charges against him was reflected in his cooperation with doctors, close relationship with his attorney, acknowledgement of his mental health struggles and taking of medications.

Hoar wrote that while Lewis was well-credentialed, her comments “reflect a misreading, misunderstanding, or disregard of the record; others reflect a cherry-picking of the record; while still others take comments in the record out of context or place undue weight on relatively insignificant observations.”

“Viewed in proper context, these critiques do not undermine the court’s confidence in either Dr. Weker’s approach or his findings,” he said.

Weker’s report alone would have been enough to persuade the court by a preponderance of the evidence that Gurung was not competent, Hoar wrote.

“After the hearing, the evidence more strongly supports that conclusion,” Hoar wrote.

Hoar found that Gurung lacked the factual or rational understanding of the proceedings against him due to his mental illness.

Gurung’s attorney, Sandra Lee, said she was relieved by Hoar’s decision. She said it was a reaffirmation for her that the judicial system, presented with the evidence, can reach a just conclusion.

“I agree with the judge’s decision because the evidence supported it,” she said.

In a statement, Donovan said the ruling does not affect the charges against Gurung and that the state will request Gurung be reevaluated for competency “at the proper time.”

“Competency to stand trial is a dynamic status and can change over time,” Donovan said. “The State of Vermont is committed to seeking justice for the victims, Yogeswari Khadka and Tulasa Rimal, and will continue to prosecute Mr. Gurung for these acts of domestic violence.”

Lee said she would be argue that Gurung should be returned to the custody of the Department of Mental Health at an upcoming hospitalization hearing, scheduled for Jan. 13. Gurung had been found to be competent to stand trial in December 2017 when George was prosecuting the case.

“That is where, when he was there before, he was receiving the proper care that allowed for him to be found competent,” Lee said.

Hoar noted in his finding that the previous competency finding made him hopeful Gurung’s health could be restored to competency in the future.

“From that point forward, his condition appears to have improved steadily, only to be reversed by the bringing of these charges and his subsequent incarceration,” he wrote. “This observation is not intended as a criticism either of the State in refiling these charges or of the Department of Corrections in its care of Mr. Gurung. Rather, it underlies the hope that the commitment procedure that is now required ... will result again in restoring Mr. Gurung’s health to the point where he can again be found competent.”

Lee said she felt like she was experiencing “deja vu” in relitigating the case.

“I think it baffles many involved in the judicial system as to why we are here again,” Lee said.

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