Federal prosecutors have announced they’ll be charging one of the three people who saw their state murder cases dismissed last week with unlawfully possessing a firearm.
The Office of the United States Attorney for the District of Vermont announced Wednesday that it has charged Veronica Lewis in U.S. District Court with counts of “unlawfully possessing a firearm after having been adjudicated as mentally defective,” and possessing a stolen firearm.
Lewis appeared in federal court on Wednesday, having been officially charged Tuesday, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
This comes after Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan announced that he’ll be reviewing three murder cases dismissed last week by Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George, after Governor Phil Scott asked that he do so.
On June 4, George announced that on May 31 her office had filed notices of dismissal, without prejudice, in the cases of Lewis, Louis Fortier and Aita Gurung.
“In each of these cases, defense counsel notified the State of its intent to rely solely on an insanity defense at trial,” George said in a June 4 release. “Therefore, each of these cases presented the issue of whether Defendant was criminally responsible at the time of the alleged offenses.”
George said the State has a duty to rebut any claims of “legal insanity” made by defense counsel, but if the State can’t do so, then its duty is to not move forward with charges.
“In all three of these cases, Defendants submitted opinions from forensic psychiatrists opining that they were insane when they committed the charged offenses,” reads George’s statement. “Further, the State received evidence that each of them has a history of major mental health illness diagnoses and previous psychiatric hospitalizations. Our review of the evidence indicates that Defendants have substantial admissible evidence to prove to a jury by a preponderance of the evidence that they were insane at the time the crimes were committed.”
Further in her statement, she said each defendant is currently in the custody of the Department of Mental Health, and that the department has confirmed it doesn’t make its treatment or discharge decisions based on the disposition of criminal charges.
“From a layperson’s perspective, and certainly as Governor, I’m at a loss as to the logic or strategy behind this decision to drop all charges,” wrote Scott in his June 5 letter to Donovan. “Especially considering the State’s Attorney is aware the Department of Mental Health has no legal authority to continue to keep individuals hospitalized when they do not meet the legal criteria for hospital level of care.”
He said the cases George dismissed are “among the most violent crimes committed in Vermont in recent memory,” and with their dismissal there’s no longer the possibility of the defendants being supervised by the Department of Corrections.
Scott asked Donovan to review each case to determine whether or not his office should file its own charges.
In his letter to Scott, dated June 11, Donovan said the matters Scott has raised are complex and that “due care and considered deliberation” would be needed in reviewing the cases. He noted that the state’s attorney is an independent constitutional officer, and, “As such, respect for the rule of law and due process requires certain deference to the State’s Attorney’s work. This difference is crucial to maintaining public trust in our democratic systems and institutions.”
He said he shares Scott’s concerns over public safety, and trusts the Department of Public Safety and Department of Mental Health will carry out their respective duties, as will his own office.
Reached by email Wednesday, George said her public comments regarding the matter were made on her Twitter feed, @SarahFairVT.
“If you had called me, I would have explained my logic & strategy, OR I could have sent you the SIXTEEN pages that I filed explaining why I dismissed…,” she tweeted to Scott — @GovPhilScott — on June 6.
Via Twitter, she said that while Scott’s claims about the Department of Mental Health having no legal authority to hold people when they don’t meet the criteria for hospitalization, “... these three individuals DO MEET CRITERIA.”
“To believe that I would not have considered EVERY SINGLE alternative and LEGAL option before making my final decision, is insulting to myself, all of the attorneys involved in this process, and to the victims and their families,” she wrote.
George said current laws allow Lewis, Fortier and Gurung to be held by the Department of Mental Health until they’re no longer a threat to public safety.
“Every decision that I have made as SA is based on FACTS, morals, prosecutorial ethics, our constitution, and public safety risks. I have not made ANY decisions based on politics, and I will absolutely not start now. END THREAD,” George tweeted.
Lewis’ federal charge
Federal prosecutors in Burlington said that Lewis was “adjudicated as mentally defective” in Queens County Criminal Court on Oct. 16, 2013, meaning that under federal law, she was no longer allowed to possess a firearm or ammunition.
According to federal prosecutors, on June 29, 2015, Lewis allegedly used a .22 caliber revolver to shoot Darryl Montague, a firearms instructor, in Westford, Vermont. Montague survived, and Lewis was arrested later that day. In her backpack was Montague’s gun. Prosecutors said Lewis was also seen by police trying to hide .22 ammunition inside a toilet paper roll while in her holding cell.
Each federal charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years upon conviction, though the actual sentence would be determined by the court following federal guidelines.
“The United States Attorney emphasizes that the charges in the complaint are merely accusations, and that the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until she is proven guilty,” reads the statement.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Ophardt is prosecuting the case. Lewis has been assigned counsel through the Office of the Federal Public Defender.
According to the Association Press, Fortier was charged in connection with the 2017 stabbing death of Richard Medina, 43, of Burlington. Gurung was charged with allegedly killing his wife with a cleaver and injuring his mother-in-law that same year.