Legal expert: Charges may not hold up in Vt. school shooting plot

Published: Mar. 6, 2018 at 5:20 PM EST
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Will the state's case against the 18-year-old accused of plotting to shoot up his former high school move forward? Our Cat Viglienzoni talked with legal experts to get some analysis.

Prosecutors say Jack Sawyer kept a diary detailing his plot, purchased guns, made a kill list, texted a friend about his plot and even admitted to police that he would-- no matter what-- carry it out. But experts say that may not be enough to make charges of aggravated attempted murder stick.

"I think the stakes are pretty high," forensic psychologist Tom Powell said.

Powell says what stood out to him when he read Sawyer's "Journal of an Active Shooter" was the level of detail involved in his alleged school shooting plot. And the lack of wavering, even though he writes that he knew it would ruin the lives of his family.

"There is an awful lot about this that suggests emotionless, cold-blooded, and not understanding on any kind of fundamental level, the consequences of what he was doing beyond how it was going to make him feel good," Powell said.

What also stood out to him-- that Sawyer had been receiving mental health treatment and that it hadn't stopped him.

"He said, you know, I'm lying to them. I'm going to do what I want to do and I'm going to make them think that I'm doing fine. And then I can pull this one off," Powell said.

Powell says the question of whether Sawyer can ever be safely released is one everyone will be asking as the case moves forward.

"Those emotionless, remorseless qualities are ones that don't just go away," he said.

But authorities may not be able to hold Sawyer indefinitely. Monday, his lawyer filed a motion to have the charges dropped, arguing Sawyer had made plans but he never made an attempt to carry out any violence at Fair Haven Union High School.

"I think that the charge down in Fair Haven is going to be problematic," legal expert Jerry O'Neill said.

O'Neill says the defense may have a strong argument.

"If someone sits at their home, writes out a journal or even goes out and buys weapons, and doesn't take any affirmative step-- it isn't really an attempt," O'Neill said. "Unless he takes that step forward, it's interesting, it's frightening but it probably isn't a violation of the law."

But O'Neill also says there are several reasons prosecutors might decide to bring more severe charges knowing they might not stick, including public safety.

"It's going to take him out of circulation," O'Neill said. "It's a message to other people. We may be able to prevent the slaughter that otherwise, he may go forward with."

O'Neill says if the charges aren't dismissed and if the case goes to a jury, it's possible that the jury could convict Sawyer. But he says he questions whether the Vermont Supreme Court would uphold that.

As for the journal, O'Neill says it would have been a key piece of evidence in an attempt. But O'Neill says it's possible that journal could be used to make a case for hospitalization on a psychiatric basis, though the bar in Vermont is pretty high for that.

O'Neill says law enforcement officers are limited in what they can do. He says they can intervene, they can try to get mental health counselors involved, talk to family members and keep a closer watch on him. But if there isn't an attempt, it's hard to make charges stick.