WCAX Investigates: The Price of Delayed Justice

Published: Jul. 15, 2021 at 6:40 PM EDT
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SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - It’s been said that the wheels of justice turn slowly, and that has especially been the case throughout the pandemic. Courts in Vermont were closed to the public for months and jury trials were put on hold. While the backlog is slowly being cleared, many inmates continue to await their day in court.

Upwards of 100 women are serving time at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington. A little more than half have been convicted, but about 40% are still awaiting their day in court as pre-trial detainees. Officials say most felony cases take about 18 months to resolve, but one woman we spoke with has been there for more than three years waiting for her chance to share her side of the story with a jury, and it’s still unclear if and when she’ll get that chance.

Carmen Guttilla made local headlines back in 2018 after she was accused of helping her daughter commit murder. She pleaded not guilty to aiding in the commission of a murder. “I was in there for three minutes at 4:30 in the afternoon and my arraignment was over,” Guttilla said. “And from then on, that story stuck with me and has been with me ever since.”

Guttilla is now 63. The mother, wife, and grandmother has been in the custody of the Department of Corrections for three years, the longest of any female detainee in the state. Her daughter, Erika, is accused of killing 35-year-old Troy Ford in 2017. Guttilla told police at the time that Ford supplied her family with drugs and abused her and her daughter physically, and sexually abused Erika.

In November 2017, police allege in court documents that Erika shot Ford in the head and Guttilla helped wrap the body in a rug, put it in a recycling bin, and left it on the back porch for months. Erika and another man are then accused of dumping Ford’s body not far from the family’s home in Highgate. The mother and daughter were arrested in May of 2018.

“I feel since I have been in here like I’ve already been convicted,” Guttilla said.

Reporter Dom Amato: What do you want people to know about your situation, your case?

Carmen Guttilla: Obviously, I’m not going to talk about the case. I just want them to realize that I have been waiting for my opportunity to express what I went through.

Court hearings came and went for Guttilla with little to no movement in her case. And she’s not the only one. There are thousands of criminal and civil cases waiting for an outcome and the backlog keeps growing. According to data from the Vermont Judiciary, around 3,000 felony cases have been added to the system every year since 2016. The majority result in plea deals, meaning the cases are closed. But according to the most recent data available, the number of cases pending for more than six months continues to increase. As of fiscal year 2019, 52% of felonies waited for more than six months.

The courts have also gotten better at clearing cases, but a clearance rate below 100% means cases are added to the backlog. “The court’s priority from day one has been criminal jury trials and it will continue to be that way,” said Vermont’s Chief Superior Judge Brian Grearson. He says COVID made the backlog worse by putting all trials on hold for months. So, if felony arrests made in the last year or so don’t end in deals, they are likely waiting longer to get their time in a courtroom.

But some courthouses including in Franklin County can’t even hold a full trial right now because of COVID restrictions. The courtroom there is only approved for a six-person jury – half the normal size. “That’s not too attractive to a lot of defendants,” said Franklin County State’s Attorney Jim Hughes

Reporter Dom Amato: So what does that mean for the Franklin County Court?

Jim Hughes: That there’s going to be a backlog for a while.

Hughes says more of his cases go to trial than the average in Vermont. While plea deals are the most likely outcome in most cases, Hughes says it’s hard to make a deal without a trial date as a deadline to get an agreement in place. “And the state, when we are not having trials, has lost that sort of coercive time frame that says it’s either time to chirp or get off the perch,” he said.

Back at the CRCF, Guttilla says she did have the opportunity to post bail but turned it down. She says the hurt of potentially being ripped away from her loved ones again to serve more time is too much and that the prison pecking order played a factor. “I have established something for myself in here. For me to go back on the outside and have to come back -- I can’t do that again. I couldn’t leave my family. I couldn’t come back here with nothing,” she said.

Guttilla says she isn’t interested in a plea deal, at least at this point. She wants her chance to tell a jury her story. “There are cases where nobody can understand an experience and why things lead up to what they do, unless they are living it. And how can you express that if you’re never given the chance?” she said.

Guttilla doesn’t blame her lawyer. She says this burden falls on the court system. Her detainee status keeps her in limbo, always wondering what’s next. She knows though that she’s not alone in this battle. There are 375 people being held right now on pre-trial charges in state and federal court.

“That detainee number does have an impact. It’s a fairly significant number,” said Vt. Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker.

It’s a consistent number – that makes up about a quarter of the state’s prison population at any given time.

And the delay is not only costing people time, but it’s also costing taxpayers money -- about $280 per day was the best estimate DOC could give us on what it costs to house inmates. That adds up to a total of over $38 million spent on detainees alone per year.

“It’s not just the ladies that are waiting. I know there’s a lot of men out there, waiting in the jails. waiting to get their time in court. And sadly enough, a lot of us will never get it,” Guttilla said

Reporter Dom Amato: Do you think you’ll get it?

Carmen Guttilla: I’m fighting for it.

Prosecutors tell us there is a lot of work that goes into cases that involve serious crimes and it’s not uncommon for them to be in the system for years. Officials say they never want to rush a case, especially if either side needs more time to prepare.

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