Supreme Court says no “attempt” in Jack Sawyer case
RUTLAND — The Vermont Supreme Court ruled this week that the alleged actions of a former Fair Haven High School student, who has been charged with plotting to shoot up the high school, do not meet the legal definition of “attempt.” On the basis of that finding, Jack Sawyer, 18, could be released from jail ahead of his trial.
The question of whether Sawyer’s actions — which police and prosecutors have said included keeping a journal outlining his plans, and buying a shotgun — amounted to an “attempt” has been a central issue in the early stages of the case.
Sawyer pleaded not guilty in February to four felony charges, including counts of attempted first-degree murder and attempted aggravated murder. The Supreme Court said the severity of the charges was not justified.
“The sole question before this Court is whether the evidence of guilt is great that defendant attempted to commit any of the four charged crimes given the definition of ‘attempt’ under Vermont law,” judges wrote in their decision.
“We hold that the weight of the evidence is not great that 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. We reverse the trial court’s hold-without-bail order and remand for further proceedings,” the decision said.
The clearest precedent for whether Sawyer’s actions constituted an attempt under Vermont law is State v. Hurley, a hundred-year-old case in which a prisoner obtained the tools to saw his way out of jail but never actually started sawing. The courts ultimately decided that this did not constitute an attempt at an escape.
The decision was cited in motions by Sawyer’s defense and state prosecutors during deliberations before the Rutland Superior criminal court.
“Just as the defendant in Hurley did not commit an attempt to break out of jail based on the mere possession of the hacksaws to saw through the jail window bars, defendant in this case took no action so proximate to the commission of the school shooting as to constitute an attempt,” the judges wrote.
“Each of defendant’s actions was a preparatory act, and not an act undertaken in the attempt to commit a crime,” it said.
Rutland County State’s Attorney Rose Kennedy said she was “incredibly disappointed” by the decision, and the legal interpretation underlying it.
“The State believes that Mr. Sawyer did commit an ‘overt act’ in satisfaction of the attempt statute and as determined by the trial court judge. Nevertheless, the State respects the Supreme Court’s authority and is bound by its ruling,” she said in an emailed statement.
Judge Thomas Zonay, who is presiding over the trial, ruled last month that Sawyer could be held without bail, and that there was enough evidence for a jury to convict Sawyer of the charges against him.
Steps allegedly taken by Sawyer in planning the crime included buying a shotgun and ammunition in Rutland days before his arrest, doing target practice with the shotgun, securing $500 in Bitcoin online currency to anonymously buy an AR-15 on the “dark web,” and researching the school’s calendar to pick a date, March 14.
“When considered in light of the evidence concerning his focus and commitment to conduct the shooting, as well as his past actions to accomplish a goal that he sets his mind to, absent the police interruption the Defendant’s acts were likely, if not assured, to end in the consummation of his crimes,” Zonay wrote.
The Supreme Court said that wasn’t enough to justify an attempt charge under Vermont law.
“Beginning with Hurley over a century ago, this Court has consistently held that preparation alone does not satisfy the high bar required to prove an attempt,” the judges wrote. “The Legislature can, if it chooses, deviate from this long-established standard by passing a law revising the definition of attempt.”
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