Does deadly cleaver attack suspect belong in jail or mental hospital?

Published: Sep. 18, 2019 at 5:27 PM EDT
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A Burlington man with mental health issues faces renewed charges for a deadly cleaver attack. But does he belong behind bars until trial? A judge is set to make that decision in the high profile case that has caught the governor's attention.

Prosecutors in 2017 described the scene on Hyde Street in Burlington as a bloodbath. Police say Aita Gurung murdered his wife in the cleaver attack. Police say he also seriously injured his mother in law.

Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George earlier this spring dropped murder charges against Gurung, saying he was legally insane at the time. But after Gov. Phil Scott asked Attorney General T.J. Donovan to take a second look at the case, Donovan last week refiled the charges.

He is set to go on trial for murder and attempted murder. But first, a judge will decide where Gurung will live during that trial -- in a prison or a mental health facility.

"Jail is a terrible place for somebody who is mentally ill," said Jerry O'Neill, a former federal prosecutor.

But jail is where Aita Gurung has been since Friday.

According to his defense attorney, Sandra Lee, there are signs his mental health is deteriorating.

"Clearly being in jail is different than being in a treatment facility run by the Department of Mental Health. Corrections is not the Department of Mental Health. Understandably, there have been concerns," she said.

Vermont Superior Court Judge Samuel Hoar on Wednesday was set to decide if Gurung should continue to await trial in jail but a conflict of interest led the court-appointed Nepalese interpreter to remove himself from the hearing, delaying the judge's decision and putting Gurung back behind bars.

Now, the Department of Mental Health is holding a bed for him until Tuesday, when Judge Hoar decides where Gurung will stay throughout the entire trial process.

Sandra Lee has said the decision to refile charges by the Attorney General's office was politically motivated. But legal expert Jerry O'Neill says he sees no political advantage in the decision.

"I think probably there is a good faith basis for bringing this forward at this time," he said.

O'Neill says refiling insanity defense cases that were dismissed is not common. He believes asking for Gurung to be held without bail makes sense in a criminal proceeding but that it would be good for Gurung to be held in a secure treatment facility.

"It may be that the state doesn't feel that it is safe to, from all kinds of basis, to hold him in a civil facility as opposed to a criminal pending the charges," he said.

The attorney general's office wouldn't comment on why they want Gurung to be held in jail. We expect to hear more from the state's perspective and get an update on Gurung's mental health at a hearing next week.