Dropped Murder Charges Prompt Lawmakers To Assess Mental Health System's Role In Public Safety

Jul 10, 2019

A prosecutor's decision last month to drop three high-profile criminal cases in Chittenden County has prompted a legislative review of the state's justice system.

Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George said she dropped two murder charges, and one charge of attempted murder, because she was unable to prove the defendants weren't legally insane when they committed the crimes.

The controversial decision reignited a long-running debate about how Vermont handles mentally ill offenders.

More from VPR — Gov. Scott Voices Concern After 3 Major Chittenden County Cases Dismissed [June 6]

Next week, the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee will meet in Montpelier to discuss the implications of the Chittenden County dismissals.  

Springfield Rep. Alice Emmons, a member of the committee, says George's decision has spotlighted the role the Department of Mental Health needs to play in preserving public safety.

"What I would say is we need a more robust mental health system," Emmons said Tuesday, "because you can't by default put them in corrections, because it's not an appropriate setting — and that's not what corrections is designed for, to provide a therapeutic environment. They're there to provide security."

"We don't want to get in the middle of these particular three situations there [in Chittenden County]. But it does highlight that we need to take a look at this come the next legislative session." — Springfield Rep. Alice Emmons

Gov. Phil Scott criticized George's decision to drop the cases, saying the defendants' exit from the criminal justice system could endanger public safety. The governor called on Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan to conduct a review the three cases; Donovan agreed to begin one.

George has defended her decision, saying the Department of Corrections should not become a default repository for people whose crimes are the result of serious mental illness. Christina Nolan, the U.S. Attorney for the district of Vermont, has since filed federal gun charges against one of the defendants, Veronica Lewis, who had previously faced a state-level charge of attempted murder.

The Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee will take testimony from prosecutors, public defenders and mental health officials next week.

"That's one of the things we’re going to be looking at: How can we address this if at all?" Emmons said. "We don't want to get in the middle of these particular three situations there [in Chittenden County]. But it does highlight that we need to take a look at this come the next legislative session."