MONTPELIER — The Vermont Supreme Court ruled in favor of Jack Sawyer on Wed. Apr. 11 on the question of bail. The decision means that the 18-year-old accused of planning a shooting at Fair Haven Union High School in Rutland, VT earlier this year cannot be held without bail on the basis that his actions do not meet the charges of felony against him under the legal definition of “attempt.”
During the two days of hearings last month, Sawyer pleaded “not guilty” to charges of four felonies: three counts of attempted murder and one count of attempted aggravated assault with a weapon. Judge Thomas Zonay, who is presiding over the trial, sided with State prosecutors at the time, ruling that Sawyer could be held without bail until his trial date.
However, in an unexpected move, a three-judge-panel reversed this decision last Wednesday at an appeal, which means that Sawyer could be released before his trial takes place.
The panel, made up of Associate Justices Beth Robinson, Harold Eaton Jr., and Karen Carroll held in their published decision that “the weight of the evidence is not great that [the] defendant has committed any act or combination of acts that would satisfy Vermont’s definition of an attempt to commit any of the charged crimes.”
From the beginning of this case, as reported by the Addison Independent, whether or not Sawyer’s actions constitute “attempt” under Vermont state law has been a main point of contention. Under current legislative precedent in Vermont, charges of “attempt” must contain action “towards the commission of the offense.” State prosecutors argued that Sawyer’s acquisition of a 12-gauge shotgun, among other alleged steps he took before the planned shooting, do fulfill the “attempt” statute. According to the same Addison Independent article, Sawyer also ostensibly chose the date of Mar. 14 based on the school’s calendar, procured $500 via Bitcoin with the intent of purchasing an AR-15 (an automatic rifle) and did target practice with the shotgun.
During deliberations, defendants cited the State v. Hurley case, which, decided over one hundred years ago, set precedent for attempt charges in Vermont. In State v. Hurley, the question at hand was whether or not obtaining the tools necessary to carry out a crime constituted an attempt to commit the crime itself. The Court ruled in favor of Hurley, reversing his conviction for attempting to break out of prison. The Court held that an “attempt” is a preparatory act that would – except for outside interruption – end in the intended crime. Sawyer’s defense referenced State v. Hurley in an effort to show that his acts of preparation were not necessarily also acts of attempt.
While Judge Zonay wrote that “absent the police interruption the Defendant’s acts were likely, if not assured, to end in the consummation of his crimes,” the Supreme Court justices said that his past actions were not enough to substantiate an attempt charge in Vermont law.
“Each of [the defendant’s] actions was a preparatory act,” the justices wrote, “and not an act undertaken in the attempt to commit a crime. Therefore, as a matter of law, [the] defendant’s acts did not fall within the definition of an attempt.”
Sawyer’s attorney, Kelly Green, believes that the Court’s decision indicates that the State’s prosecution may not be successful in this high-profile case, reported Seven Days VT.
However, the justices seemed to offer an alternative, saying that while they had to uphold the over 100 years of consistent legislation, “the Legislature can, if it chooses, deviate from this long-established standard by passing a law revising the definition of attempt.”
This decision came on the same Wednesday that Governor Phil Scott publicly signed three gun-control bills into law in a historic move for firearm legislation in Vermont. Following the Parkland shooting and the foiled shooting at Fair Haven, Gov. Scott, a longtime proponent of gun rights in his political career, changed his stance to support more stringent firearm legislation. Scott cited the “near miss” at Fair Haven as a large reason behind his shift in perspective, saying that Vermont has been given “the opportunity to think differently.”
“I thought as the safest state in the nation, Vermont was immune to this type of violence,” Gov. Scott said at the public signing ceremony last Wednesday amid heckles and angry protests from gun rights supporters. “The reality of how close we came to a tragedy forced me to come full circle.”
As of this historic moment, Vermont, previously known as one of the most gun-friendly states, has become one of the least. The bills signed into law include provisions that enable authorities to remove guns from people at “extreme-risk” of violence, expand background checks and place limits on magazine capacity.
“It is incumbent upon the state to combat the epidemic of mass shootings that has swept the country in recent years,” said Gov. Scott in front of the State House. “Today we choose action over inaction, doing something over doing nothing, knowing there will always be more work to do.”
On Thurs., Apr. 12 – the day following the Vermont Supreme Court’s decision to reverse the hold-without-bail ruling in Sawyer’s case - Green filed a motion to dismiss the charges against him. Though she was unwilling to comment for this piece, Green is quoted in Seven Days VT saying: “Jack didn’t attempt any crime, he hasn’t attempted the charged crimes, and they have to be dismissed. When there is not probable cause, the state’s involvement in someone’s life must end.”
The same day, Rutland County State Attorney Rosemary Kennedy served Sawyer with an “extreme risk protection order,” which would not allow him to possess or purchase weapons following his possible release. The order was granted and Sawyer’s attorney does not intend to challenge it.
Gov. Scott announced on Fri. April 13 that he was “appalled” at the Court’s reversal on the issue of bail. He detailed several steps that authorities would take to protect the Fair Haven Union high school community before Sawyer’s possible release, including the participation of nine law enforcement agencies, the obtainment of no-trespass orders against Sawyer and increased “security infrastructure” in the school district.