Violent mental health cases prompt push for reforms

Updated: Jun. 2, 2021 at 2:52 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Homicides and violent crimes aren’t as common in Vermont as they are in other states, but when they do happen, there are divided opinions about what to do with those accused, especially if they have a mental health condition.

One Vermont mother fought for a new law to start filling some gaps in the criminal justice system to better protect victims and their families. She believes offenders should get the treatment they need but is worried some could get away with murder.

Emily was 26-years-old, she was a twin. She grew up here, a couple of blocks from here. She has, she had a little boy who’s 20 months...” said Kelly Carrol, Emily Hamann’s mother.

Hamman was killed along the Riverwalk Path in Bennington in January. “He tackled her, slit her throat,” Carrol said.

Her alleged attacker was 33-year-old Darren Pronto. Police found him nearby with blood-stained clothes and a bloody knife. His sister told police he was diagnosed with schizophrenia not long before the incident and that he also carved the words “murder time” into the wall at his home.

“He was accountable, he was responsible, and he definitely is a murderer,” Carrol said. But is he accountable in the court of law? Mental illness is often a factor in serious crimes and depending on the severity of the disorder, could lead to little or no jail time.

Police say Darren Pronto of Pownal waited for Emily Hamann on the Riverwalk path in Bennington,...
Police say Darren Pronto of Pownal waited for Emily Hamann on the Riverwalk path in Bennington, where he killed her by slitting her throat with a knife.(WCAX)

“I think that what we’ve engrained in our minds is that if someone isn’t in jail or somebody is not being quote-unquote ‘punished,’ then we aren’t protecting victims,” said Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George.

George made headlines two summers ago by dropping charges in three cases involving murder and attempted murder. At the time, she said experts couldn’t rebut opinions that the offenders were mentally ill at the time of the crime and that they therefore couldn’t be held accountable. It caught the governor’s attention, who called on the attorney general to review the cases. At least one of those offenders will now spend time behind bars, but George argues jail isn’t the place for mentally ill offenders. “Putting somebody in jail for a crime they committed due to a mental disease or defect is actually not getting that person any better, and that person is more likely to commit crimes,” she said.

Insanity is the legal definition for an offender with a mental disease or defect. Vermont law says a person is not responsible for a crime if an offender suffers from a mental disease or defect or lacks the capacity to appreciate the criminality of his or her conduct. “We see insanity as a defense all the time. Every week we are getting it from defense attorneys,” George said.

But legal experts agree it’s rare that a jury finds a defendant not guilty by reason of insanity and likely has never happened in Vermont before. “The vast majority of cases where a case gets dismissed based on insanity theory, the prosecution and defense agree, because their psychiatric experts agree,” said David Sleigh, the go-to defense attorney in many of these cases. He says the insanity defense isn’t used lightly and has to be backed by expert opinions. He says giving a case to a jury that involves serious mental health issues is irresponsible. “I think prosecutors have an ethical obligation to be careful about that and not do the popular thing at the expense of the right thing.”

But opinions on offenders’ mental health can vary. In one of Vermont’s most infamous murder trials, opinions varied on Steven Bourgoin’s mental capacity. One expert believed he couldn’t be held responsible for the 2016 wrong-way crash that killed five teens, and another disagreed. “I tell people I know that my job is to fit square pegs into round holes,” said Dr. Jonathan Weker, a forensic psychiatrist, who was not involved in the Bourgoin case. He says the law and medicine think differently and that medical concepts don’t fit neatly into how laws are written and that its up to the experts to interpret the law accordingly. “The law wants to know ‘yes’ or ‘no’ about some very specific things that medicine doesn’t really need to know.”

Weker says he usually spends upwards of four hours evaluating patients to make an opinion on their mental health, paying close attention to whether they are lying or exaggerating their condition. “I certainly try to pick up on inconsistencies and if I believe something like that may have happened, I’ll report it that way,” he said.

If his opinion is that a defendant has or had a mental disease or defect at the time of the crime, a judge or jury can find that person to be “insane” and not responsible.

Those offenders are typically locked up in mental health facilities instead of prison. The cases are confidential, but lawmakers have been told there are only about six to eight in custody at any time in Vermont. But it’s a big enough issue to catch the attention of legislators, and Hamman’s murder highlighted brought it home even more.

“I think we have -- for far too long actually -- tried to get by guessing about this population,” said Senator Dick Sears/D-Bennington. “The current system has so many gaps.”

Sears says a new bill -- S.3 -- aims to address some of those gaps. If it’s signed into law, it will allow the department of mental health to notify the state’s attorney days before an offender is released from their custody. Prosecutors can then inform victims or their families. It also creates a study committee to examine the need for a new forensic facility. It would be a “one-stop-shop” for mental health evaluations and a secure facility for the small number of mentally ill violent offenders.

Emily Hamann
Emily Hamann(WCAX)

Kelly Carroll believes the current system has failed Darren Pronto and believes lawmakers didn’t act fast enough to address the gaps, ultimately leading to her daughter’s murder. “I think her blood is on their hands, as well as Prontos,” she said. And despite what some in the legal system believe, Carroll says justice won’t be served if Pronto ends up spending the rest of his life in a psychiatric hospital. “I think he should be in jail.”

Carroll did support the passage of S.3 and continues to push for a forensic facility. She says the state is not equipped to properly care for violent, mentally ill offenders.

As for Darren Pronto -- he is currently being held without bail. Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage says the case should be trial-ready by early fall.

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