RUTLAND — The Vermont Supreme Court ruled Friday that a police officer was not liable in a wrongful death case for not arresting a murderer prior to the murder.
The decision upheld one from Vermont civil court granting Aron McNeil summary judgment in the lawsuit brought against him by Thomas and Mary Baptie.
The Bapties’ son, John Baptie, was killed in 2007 by Jonathan Bruno in the Wal-Mart parking lot in Rutland. Bruno was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 35 years to life in prison.
The lawsuit alleged that McNeil, then a Castleton police officer and now a Vermont State Police trooper, had taken a complaint from Thomas Baptie that Bruno had been harassing the Baptie family prior to the murder. The lawsuit claimed McNeil was negligent in his investigation of the case, failing to prevent the younger Baptie’s murder.
The Bapties also sued Bruno, winning a $1 million judgment.
In the McNeil case, the 10-page ruling authored by Justice Brian Burgess describes McNeil taking the complaint and asking Rutland City Police to serve Bruno with the citation at what McNeil incorrectly believed was Bruno’s last known address.
The murder occurred two days after the failed citation attempt, when Bruno and Baptie encountered each other in the parking lot outside Wal-Mart.
The court found McNeil’s “alleged conduct here falls squarely within his discretion to determine the scope of his investigation, including what efforts he undertook to serve a misdemeanor citation on Bruno.”
“John Baptie did not appear to be in, or consider himself to be in, any immediate danger, and defendant never suggested he was undertaking a duty to protect (Baptie),” Burgess wrote.
“Moreover, even considering the facts most favorably to plaintiffs, the record contains no evidence of bad faith on defendant’s part,” the ruling continued. “... An objective person in defendant’s position could not have believed that his conduct violated clearly established law.”
The decision also noted that the lawsuit hinged upon the assumption that McNeil would have physically arrested Bruno, rendering him unable to kill Baptie. In fact, though, McNeil was only seeking to issue Bruno a misdemeanor citation.
“Nothing in the record suggests that plaintiffs expected defendant or anyone else to remove Bruno from the streets in the immediate future,” the decision reads. “In fact, Thomas Baptie suggested to defendant on several occasions that he would take matters into his own hands if Bruno showed up at his residence.”
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