On Thursday, Democratic Attorney General T.J. Donovan sided with Republican Governor Phil Scott against Democratic Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah Fair George in a high-profile murder case. And he insisted, naturally, that his decision had nothing to do with politics.
OK, before we get to the merits of his argument, let’s make one thing clear. It’s political. Whether Donovan wanted it to be or not — whether politics entered into his thinking or not — his decision indisputably has political ramifications.
In May, George dismissed charges against Aita Gurung for the 2017 murder of his wife because George decided she wouldn’t be able to rebut Gurung’s insanity defense. (A court-hired expert and a prosecution expert had both concluded that Gurung was insane at the time of the fatal attack.) It was one of three high-profile dismissals by George on the same day. Later, Scott asked Donovan to review the three cases.
Donovan was George’s predecessor in Chittenden County. His decision in the Gurung case clearly casts doubt on her judgment because he has just overruled her judgment. His protestations of “utmost respect” for George ring hollow.
In a media scrum after Gurung’s re-arraignment Friday, Donovan presented a bunch of inadequate and contradictory explanations. He sounded like he was grasping at straws.
Gurung’s public defender Sandra Lee noted that the case “is now coming back with nothing different — same affidavit, same charges.” Nothing different. I don’t know why or how Donovan’s review took more than two months, since his crew apparently didn’t find any new information or try to add to the prosecution’s case. He didn’t try to claim that George had been wrong; rather, he lamely asserted that the case needed to go to a jury trial because… I guess because it was a high-profile murder?
According to VTDigger, it’s “believed to be unprecedented” for a Vermont attorney general to step in and refile a case dismissed by a state’s attorney. Donovan himself acknowledged that deference to state’s attorneys is “crucial to maintain public trust in our democratic systems and institutions.” If so, then it ought to take some sort of deviation from due process to trigger such a move — prosecutorial misconduct, bribery, complete clusterfuck. None of that is true, or even alleged, in the Gurung case. Multiple experts concluded that Gurung was insane, and George saw no way forward with a prosecution. Donovan does not contest this. Or, seemingly, anything else about the matter.
Donovan also acknowledged that he wouldn’t have reviewed or refiled the case in the absence of a request from the governor. Scott’s intervention, said Donovan, created a situation where “you had a debate among elected officials that eroded the public’s trust in our criminal justice system.”
Mm-hmm. So because Scott spoke out, George pays the price. I guess the squeaky wheel does get the grease.
Donovan is still reviewing (whatever the hell that means) the other two cases dismissed by George in May. If he applies the same logic, he will refile all three. After all, Scott cast doubt on all three dismissals, and George defended her actions publicly. In all three cases, “you had a debate among elected officials.”
And what of the erosion of the public trust caused by an attorney general overruling a decision by a state’s attorney? What of the erosion of public trust caused by a debate among elected officials — not Scott and George, but George and Donovan?
If I didn’t know better, I’d think Donovan was trying to kneecap a potential successor. Should he run for governor in 2020, George is widely seen as a leading candidate for attorney general. Donovan has just given the Republicans a big fat gift — they can now depict George as too soft on crime even for a fellow Democrat!
Whether he intended it or not, Donovan has damaged George’s political future. It’ll be even worse if he follows his own logic and refiles all three of the dismissed cases. He ought to be feeling some heat from fellow Democrats, especially in his home base of Chittenden County.