Three separate cases involving murder or attempted murder charges were dismissed by Chittenden County state attorney Sarah George in 2019 as all three defendants had “substantial evidence” including assessments by mental health professionals that they were legally insane at the time the crimes were committed.
But Attorney General TJ Donovan has filed new charges in all three cases. Most recently, last week, when he filed a new first degree murder charge against Louis Fortier.
VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Attorney General TJ Donovan about the murder charges against Louis Fortier, why the charges were dismissed and why they were filed a week ago. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: This first degree murder charge against Louis Fortier was dropped about two years ago [in June 2019]. Where has he been since then?
TJ Donovan: Mr. Fortier was hospitalized at the Berlin State Psychiatric Hospital – what we would commonly call the Vermont State Hospital – which is a secure facility in Berlin, Vermont.
Can you tell us what has changed in the Fortier case that led to the laying of charges last week?
Sure. What has changed, I think, is my view that insanity is a legal defense. It is not a medical diagnosis.
[Chittenden County] state attorney [Sarah] Georges is absolutely right: there is evidence based on expert opinion that these people cannot assess the criminality of their driving, [which is] the standard for insanity.
Having said that, in our legal system, the people who decide, who decide whether someone is crazy or not, is the jury. The opinion of the experts is just that: it is proof. You present the evidence in court to the jury, and the jury decides whether someone is crazy or not. To my knowledge, we have never had a verdict in Vermont of “not guilty by reason of insanity”.
“You present the evidence to the jury in court, and the jury decides whether someone is crazy or not.” – Attorney General TJ Donovan
There is no doubt that mental illness is a factor here, but it should be clear that just because a person has a mental illness does not mean that they are legally insane. Madness is a legal defense. It is not a medical diagnosis. He appears before a jury, to weigh the evidence and make a decision. This is how our system works.
No more RVPs: Vermont Attorney General files dismissed murder charge after governor’s request [from September 2019]
As you know, how the police and the criminal justice system interact with people with mental illness has become a very important part of the conversation about police and criminal justice reform. And Louis Fortier’s attorney, David Sleigh, said the Attorney General’s intervention in this case is “backward-looking” in this regard because, again, health experts say Fortier has severe mental illness. .
I understand you are saying this is something a jury should determine. But he was detained by the state in the mental hospital. How would it serve justice or the public to indict him now and potentially bring him to justice for this crime?
Let’s start with the fact that the allegation is that Louis Fortier stabbed Richard Medina in broad daylight on Church Street. [in 2017]; stabbed him in the face, stabbed him in the neck. Richard Medina died on Church Street in broad daylight. I think there must be accounting for this.
Now let’s talk about what the Ministry of Mental Health is. So when these cases are closed, it means there is no record. [It means] that these cases are sealed. And when you go to the Ministry of Mental Health, it’s not a public safety agency. Their standard is very clear. They examine whether or not someone has a mental illness, whether someone is a danger to themselves or to others.
And then the law is: this individual must be placed in the least restrictive framework [available], then you have a 90-day rolling review. This means that Mr. Fortier can be made public with no protection, no treatment in place, no oversight.
His lawyer said in the media that [Fortier] was going to be released in November. It was news to me. I did not know. I believe that victims and their families have a right to go through our justice system. And I think public safety needs to be addressed. You can do this through the criminal justice system.
[Editor’s note: Fortier’s attorney, David Sleigh, told VPR his client is subject to a hospitalization order through November and added, “There is no serious discussion of him going anywhere other than the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin.”]
No more RVPs: Governor Scott expresses concern after 3 major Chittenden County cases dismissed [June 2019]
I’m curious to repeat these accusations, after Governor Phil Scott sent you this letter. Would you have laid these charges if the governor had not sent you this letter?
“I did not ask to take on these cases. The governor asked me to review these cases … I said I was going to review them, that I was going to exercise my own discretion, based on of my review. And I came to a different conclusion. And it’s not uncommon for lawyers to disagree. “- Attorney General TJ Donovan
No, I wouldn’t have.
Listen, I was a public prosecutor. I understand the role, I understand the work. This is a difficult work. And State Attorney George – someone who[m] I have a lot of respect for – done a good job.
Having said that, as you indicated, I did not ask to take on these cases. The governor has asked me to review these cases. The Attorney General’s office is the primary law enforcement office in the state of Vermont. We have what is called concurrent jurisdiction with the 14 [distinct] county state attorneys.
There is a practice of respecting the decisions of our state attorney. But I think it was such an extraordinary circumstance, given the gravity of the crimes, the governor’s request to see her again, that I said I was going to see her again, that I was going to exercise my own discretion over the matter. basis of my review. And I came to a different conclusion. And it’s not uncommon for lawyers to disagree.
No more RVPs: Dropping murder charges prompts lawmakers to assess role of mental health system in public safety [July 2019]
If Mr. Fortier appears before a jury, if he is found guilty and placed in the custody of the Correctional Service, given his past, given what we know has happened so far, the fact that he has been detained by the state in psychiatric care for several years, would a prison environment really be the best place for him and the other inmates?
It’s a good question. And I think the issue of mental illness in our prison system is a major concern for me. I think there are real issues of fairness and equity. Although I cannot speak directly to this case as it is now a pending case, I would like to report one of the other cases [dismissed over the accused’s insanity defense and since refiled.]
Veronica Lewis has now pleaded guilty in this case. Now, the proposed plea deal was not accepted by the court, but she has essentially 40 years of probation with mental health treatment, with structure and supervision, so that she can be successful. And if it succeeds, our community succeeds. And that’s the balance you’re looking for.
But I also come back to this feeling that, God forbid, something like this is happening in our community. And if I could have done anything, however modest, to prevent it through our legal process, I will do my job.
Do you have questions, comments or advice? Send us a message or tweet Morning edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.
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