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Man Accused Of 2017 Meat Cleaver Killing Currently Not Competent To Stand Trial

Aita Gurung is led to his chair during his second arraignment.
Sasha Goldstein
Seven Days
A judge in Chittenden County ruled a man accused of killing his wife in 2017 is not competent to stand trial. Charges against Aita Gurung were dropped last year but then refiled in the fall by the attorney general after a request from the governor.

A judge in Chittenden County determined this week that a man accused of killing his wife with a meat cleaver in 2017 is not competent to stand trial.

The latest ruling in the politicized case delays the court proceedings until Aita Gurung is deemed fit to stand trial. Attorney General TJ Donovan said Friday his office is still committed to prosecuting the case.

In the order issued Dec. 31, Judge Samuel Hoar wrote that, based on the evidence presented to the court, Gurung “lacks either factual or rational understanding of the proceedings against him, due to his mental illness.”

Gurung’s public defender Sandra Lee praised the ruling and said it affirmed concerns she raised when the case was refiled in September.

“Mr. Gurung's very serious mental health condition has never been contested, so ... it's not surprising that being placed in jail had a negative effect on his mental health,” Lee said in an interview Thursday.

Attorney General TJ Donovan said he wasn’t surprised by the ruling.

“It’s a dynamic condition, it can change,” Donovan said. “At the appropriate time, we’ll ask the court to re-evaluate it.”

More From VPR: How Should Vermont Handle Insanity Cases? Debate Grows After Charges Refiled in Burlington Killing [Oct. 28]

Murder charges against Gurung were dropped last year after Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George determined she could not rebut claims that Gurung was legally insane when the alleged crime occurred.

But in September, Donovan re-filed murder charges after a request from Republican Gov. Phil Scott.

The governor raised public safety concerns about three cases George dismissed, including the one against Gurung. Donovan, a Democrat who is reportedly mulling a run for governor, agreed to review all three cases. On Friday,  Donovan said reviews of the two other cases were still pending.

After charges were refiled, Gurung was moved from a treatment facility to jail. Judge Hoar, in his ruling, noted that prior to the AG refiling charges, Gurung’s condition appeared to be improving, “only to be reversed by the bringing of these charges and his subsequent incarceration.”

Hoar also said that his observation was not meant as a criticism of the state or the Department of Corrections.

Donovan defended his handling of the case: “I’m not sure I’ve created this situation. This was a murder charge, this was a woman who was brutally killed with a meat cleaver. And our system of justice, in my opinion, requires us to go through a criminal proceeding.”

A hospitalization hearing is scheduled for January 13 to determine if Gurung should be moved back to a treatment facility. Though the case is currently on hold, trial proceedings could start again if the court determines Gurung’s mental health has improved.

“The presumption is that at some point, possibly Mr. Gurung will be competent again with the appropriate care,” said Lee, the public defender. “So, it’s not a case where the matter is definitely finished.”

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