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Sawyer Case Reveals Legal Voids In Vermont Law

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WAMC file photo
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A three-judge panel of the Vermont Supreme Court last week ruled that planning a crime is not the same as attempting one and bail should be granted to the teenager accused of plotting a mass shooting at the Fair Haven Union High School.  On Monday, the most serious charges against the teen were dropped.
The Rutland County State’s attorney dismissed charges of attempted murder and aggravated assault with a weapon against 18-year-old Jack Sawyer, saying the state Supreme Court ruling had made her case “untenable.”  Lesser charges of criminal threatening and carrying a dangerous weapon were kept.  Prosecutors asked that bail be kept at $100,000.

Sawyer’s case has led to sweeping gun reforms signed by Governor Phil Scott on April 11th.   Legislators in the Vermont Senate and House judiciary committees are now reviewing "attempt" language with an eye to change the statutes.
Former U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont Tris Coffin says whatever is done must be clearly defined.  “It’ll be interesting if the Legislature acts in response to this to change the attempt statute. That could change the situation a good deal in cases where crimes have not been committed but people have taken steps and maybe made plans and done a little more than making plans to move towards a potential criminal act. If the legislature passes a new law that could significantly make a change.  And I think the judge’s decision interpreting the intent statute in this case that’s also a change.  You know prosecutors with cases that have attempt elements or attempt-type elements with them will clearly be looking at this decision and thinking about in terms of the charges that they bring.”

Former Windsor County State’s Attorney Robert Sand is now the director of the Vermont Law School’s Center for Justice Reform.  He commends the prosecutor for recognizing that the charges could not be supported by current law.  “This case highlights a void or a missing piece under current Vermont law. I do think the Legislature this session will try to pass a law or a set of laws to help develop a response in the future.  The law isn’t going to prevent the behavior from happening again.  But it will hopefully avoid a court throwing out charges that are trying to address that conduct.”

Following the Fair Haven threat, Governor Scott ordered security assessments of all schools in the state.  Vermont Principals’ Association Executive Director Jay Nichols says everyone — from administrators to students — is worried and wants to see laws strengthened.  “I think just changing the legislation to close the loophole that occurred in this case will be very helpful.  On our end it’s more about making sure that schools have safety and crisis plans that are up to date, entrance preventive measures that are in place, that kids know the importance of reporting any potential threats like this.  There’s two prongs here.  There’s the culture you create within your school. You create that positive environment in your school. And then there’s the physical safety aspect of making sure you know that you have buzzed in doors, that you’ve got security cameras and school resource officers and those types of things.”

Any new laws that the legislature creates would not apply to the Sawyer case.  
 

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