The Vt. Supreme Court triggered a firestorm in its split ruling issued Friday that throws out the domestic assault conviction and a 12 to 20 year prison term for Michael Brillon, an habitual offender from Bennington.
A three-justice majority of Denise Johnson, John Dooley, and Marilyn Skoglund determined that the three years it took to get to trial had not satisfied Brillon's constitutional right to a speedy trial. They ruled the convictions must be vacated and the charges dismissed.
But in a bitter dissent, justices Bryan Burgess and Paul Reiber said the lions share of the delays were attributable to the defendant, not to the state.
"Well I have to say that I'm really surprised by this decision. It seems to me that the court, one: got the law wrong in that they really didn't explain how it was in any meaningful way that the defendant wasn't responsible for his own delays," said Cheryl Hanna of the Vt. Law School.
Hanna says the three-justice majority got the law wrong in this case and in so doing did a disservice to domestic abuse victims.
"The defendant here was continually delaying the trial, asking for new attorneys, as a way to further harass this victim, and as a way to, you know, further exert power and control. And a court that I think has usually been pretty good about understanding victims' rights really did not understand that context at all," explained Hanna.
Jennifer Fink works for Women Helping Battered Women, she too is dismayed by the ruling. She says it will send the wrong message to victims. "They're being, oftentimes being told by their offender, nobody's going to believe you, I'm going to get away with it, don't even bother to go to the police. If you're hearing these messages, this is going to reaffirm that."
The ruling also drew an anguished response from Gov. Jim Douglas, R-Vermont. He called the court ruling grossly irresponsible.