Category Archives: Law

When Pigs Fly

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the wave of ensuing protests, Vermont’s political leadership is united in calling for criminal justice reform.

They are also united in minimizing expectations for actual, y’know, results.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Law enforcement has always gotten a full, respectful, sometimes dreamy-eyed reception in legislative committees. Police chiefs, sheriffs and state’s attorneys always wield strong influence when it comes to any issue that touches on their work, from criminal justice to substance abuse to cannabis to the deadly perils of Happy Hour.

(This post concerns our top Democratic and Progressive leaders, not Republican Gov. Phil Scott. He has made all the right noises, and I’m sure he will endorse modest reforms. But the expectations ought to be higher for the D’s and P’s.)

No surprise then, that Dem/Prog Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe and Dem House Speaker Mitzi Johnson have already put the kibosh on any talk of cutting the Vermont State Police budget. Ashe, who believes it’s time for him to move up the ladder to the lieutenant governorship, offered this in lieu of leadership: “It’s one thing to say that, to communicate as part of this national discussion, but how you actually implement such a proposal is not a one size fits all.”

Spoken like a politician fleeing a hot-button issue.

Johnson asserted that Vermont has “a very different law enforcement structure than a lot of other states,” so those notorious one-size-fits-all solutions just won’t work here.

Well, I’d like to know more about how Vermont’s structure of state police, county sheriffs and municipal police departments, whose officers are armed with lethal weapons and who are primarily responsible for responding to a variety of public safety situations, is so dramatically different from the police structure elsewhere.

And whose officers have a track record of disproportionately stopping or arresting people of color and of using deadly force in dealing with the mentally ill.

Eh, I don’t think out “structure” is so different. Johnson is simply making another meaningless callout to Vermont exceptionalism.

As for Attorney General T.J. Donovan, he has tweeted that America’s criminal justice system is “broken,” and the time to fix it is “now.” But his proposed fixes are from the lipstick-on-a-pig bargain bin.

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Keep the ball

Yesterday on Twitter…

This is absolutely bloody brilliant. And I feel absolutely certain that Congressional Democrats don’t have the stomach to pull it off.

Let’s recap the situation as of midday, Tuesday December 17, 2019. The House of Representatives is due to vote sometime this week on articles of impeachment for That Most Impeachable Of Presidents, Donald Trump. In the normal course of events, the action would move to the Senate for a trial — and an acquittal, thanks to the LALALALA I CAN’T HEAR YOU Republican majority.

Where Lindsey Graham has promised not to listen to the evidence, thus pre-disavowing his duty as a juror. And where Majority Leader “Moscow” Mitch McConnell has openly acknowledged he’s conniving with Trump on trial rules and staging.

The game is fixed. So why play along?

The House should approve impeachment, and then sit on it. Don’t convey the articles to the Senate. There’s nothing that mandates immediate conveyance, and a lot of good arguments for playing keep-away.

For starters, the impeachment process has been the first time in living memory that the Dems have managed to wrest the spotlight away from whatever Trump is tweeting or helicopter-adjacent shouting. They’ve controlled the narrative, and will continue to do so this week.

After that, it’s in Republican hands once again — if the House gives it over to the Senate. The Dems would go back to playing defense.

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Donovan Knew

The Vanishing Wunderkind

If there was any doubt about whether Attorney General T.J. Donovan might run for governor in 2020, he has just eliminated it.

Not by making an announcement, but by making it all but impossible to get the Democratic nomination. The guy’s so radioactive right now, he ought to just lay low for at least two more years.

Because it turns out he played a major role in concealing the scandal at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. We know this thanks to Seven Days‘ Paul Heintz, who has done the near-impossible. He uncovered a major scandal in state government — and then, one week later, he has substantially advanced the story, at a time when every media outlet in Vermont is pursuing this thing. Or should be.

Today’s piece reveals that pretty much everyone in state government knew about widespread abuse at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility long before it became public, including officials who loudly expressed their horror and astonishment that there were problems at the prison.

Including, most notably for our purposes, T.J. Donovan, who has known about systematic problems at the prison for two and a half years.

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Donovan mulls outside monitor for women’s prison

The scandal-plagued Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility may need an independent monitor to provide an outside view of its management. Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan floated the idea Monday, in an interview from the meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General in Washington.

A report in last week’s Seven Days outlined a years-long pattern of sexual assault and other misbehavior at Vermont’s only women’s prison — and a pattern of covering up or ignoring those abuses. Since then, Gov. Phil Scott has ordered Human Services Secretary Mike Smith to launch an investigation, Smith has assumed managerial control of the prison and House Democrats plan to conduct hearings on the scandal as soon as the new legislative session begins next month.

Donovan said the idea of an independent monitor arose Monday in a side conversation at the NAAG meeting. “This has been done at the federal level with troubled prisons,” Donovan said. “Usually, there’s a list of criteria for compliance that the independent party would monitor.” Donovan isn’t ready to advocate for the move, but he noted that “we may need some sort of independent third party.”

Donovan has not launched his own investigation of the prison; instead, he is assisting with Smith’s probe. There’s also a criminal investigation underway by the Vermont State Police. Donovan defended his decision to stay in a supporting role for now.

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On the women’s prison scandal

First of all, full credit to Paul Heintz and the Seven Days team for producing a tremendously impactful piece of reporting. You know you’ve hit the mark when you force every political figure in Vermont to stop in their tracks and take action to investigate a scandal.

And scandal it is. An epidemic of sexual assault involving guards and inmates at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, Vermont’s only women’s prison:

“It’s an epidemic at this facility,” said one longtime officer who claims to have faced retaliation for speaking out against it.

“The [officers] lie, have sex with inmates, assault people and have each other’s backs to ensure that nobody finds out,” said Melissa Gaboury, who was released from the prison last week. “They also retaliate against any inmate for speaking about anything.”

Not good. Not good at all. Especially in a time when the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) has mandated procedures for curbing sexual assault behind bars. And when the state’s corrections department has supposedly complied with the law.

Yeah, maybe not.

If half the stuff in Heintz’s story, and his follow-up piece, is true, then this is a full-on scandal that ought to rock the state’s corrections system to its core. People should be fired. People should be brought up on criminal charges. And not just guards on the front lines, but top officials who must have been complicit in cover-ups and creating (or permitting) a culture of denial and suppression.

The cherry on this shit sundae: Daniel Zorzi, a corrections officer who was a known drug abuser, and who trafficked in and shared drugs with inmates, was somehow named the DOC’s 2018 shift supervisor of the year. Here he is, embarrassingly enough, posing with then-corrections commissioner Lisa Menard and then-human services secretary Al Gobeille.

Oopsie.
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When a politician says “It’s not political,” you can bet your ass it’s political

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.

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About that vacancy on the state supreme court

Last week, longtime Vermont Supreme Court Justice John Dooley announced he will retire at the end of his term, next March. There followed the predictable encomiums to his service and legal mind and his staunch liberalism, notably expressed in the 1999 civil unions decision.

You know the first thing that crossed my mind?

Who gets to fill the vacancy: Peter Shumlin or his successor?

Yeah, I immediately went to the politics. Vermont Political Observer through and through. The stakes aren’t nearly as high as for the U.S. Supreme Court, but there are definitely stakes. Presumably Phil Scott and Sue Minter would have different qualifications in mind if they got to name one of the Court’s five Justices.

I don’t know for sure; no one in the media has seen fit to inquire about the candidates’ judicial philosophy and their views of Vermont jurisprudence.

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Incoherent Rifle-Wielding Man, Blah Blah Blah

In a time when America is averaging more than one mass shooting per day*, the good people of Burlington just suffered through several weeks of a homeless man riding his bike around town with a rifle strapped to his back.

*FBI definition: four or more people shot in a single incident, not including the shooter. We’ve had 29 in July so far. 

Per Seven Days’ Mark Davis, police “found [Malcolm Tanner] to be ‘incoherent,’ and he insisted that laws do not apply to him.” But they did nothing about him because “he did not seem to be breaking any laws.”

Tra la la.

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It’s summertime, and racism is bustin’ out all over

Perhaps in honor of our nation’s birthday, there’s quite a bit of sobering news for those who believe that Vermont is above all this racism stuff because, well, we’re Vermont!

Actually, I’d compare us to Scandinavian countries before the first waves of darker-skinned immigrants. They didn’t have racism because there wasn’t any reason for it to spring forth. But you add in some brown people — or even the idea of adding in some brown people — and boy howdy, turns out your attic is full of spiders.

We have, of course, the ongoing disgrace in Rutland, where opponents of setting 100 Syrian refugees might go so far as to eject the best damn mayor their city has ever had. And don’t try to sell me that the anti-refugee contingent are upset over process. That’s an excuse. No, they’re afraid of dark-skinned people wearing heebie-jabbies.

Exhibits B and C are separate reports detailing “stark racial disparities in Vermont policing and incarceration,” per VTDigger; Exhibit D is a series of truly disturbing incidents of racism in, of all places, Craftsbury — the summer home of Bill “Spaceman” Lee and an epicenter of Northeast Kingdom counterculture.

And the cherry on top of this shit sundae: Governor Shumlin urging federal authorities not to harass or “hassle” members of the Rainbow Family Gathering. I wonder if he’d express the same sentiment if it was, say, a Hip-Hop Nation event at Mount Tabor.

Call me cynical, but I doubt it.

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The McAllister “trial” was a disgrace

Mad as Hell, boys and girls.

That’ll do for a start.

Today, the prosecution threw in the towel on the first of two cases against accused rapist Norm McAllister. And absolutely threw their star witness under the bus.

Disgraceful.

There is much more to say, but let’s start there. The accuser did not step forward of her own accord; the authorities encouraged her to do so, and actively solicited her testimony.

She was a reluctant witness from the start. Until the last moment, there were doubts about whether she would show up.

As it turned out, she shouldn’t have. She was subjected to hours of raw, hurtful questioning about every little detail of a series of intimate assaults. And what was her reward?

Less than 24 hours later, the prosecution threw up its hands and said, “Never mind.” Her compliance, her assistance, her exposure in the media, her dutiful effort to testify accuately to events that happened several years ago — all flushed down the toilet.

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