Should pretrial inmates at risk of COVID-19 be released?

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION, Vt. (WCAX) Should inmates at high risk for complications from COVID-19 be released from jail pending their trials? That's the question a Vermont judge is deciding in more than a dozen cases.

Frank Sanville/File

It's wasn't your average bail hearing Monday. Everyone in the Windham Superior Court was wearing a mask, including the judge. The witnesses testified by phone and the hearing lumped together 13 cases throughout the region, each dealing with a vulnerable inmate currently lodged behind bars.

"What arguably is going to be happening through the consolidation though is all the issues related to COVID-19. Meaning, how are these individuals who are vulnerable being properly cared for in the facility during the pandemic," said Janssen Willhoit, a public defender representing some of the defendants.

The main case centers around Frank Sanville, a South Royalton man accused of shooting and killing his wife in 2018 with her 5-year-old nephew in the room. Sanville faces life in prison for first-degree murder. But the coronavirus has also made its way into jails, infecting more than 30 inmates at the prison in St. Albans Town. That's a concern for elderly inmates like Sanville, who are at a higher risk of complications from the virus.

Michael Beyor, the superintendent at the St. Albans facility, was one of several superintendents who testified about what they are doing to keep their inmates safe. "There have been six videos that went out from our training folks associated with the department that are mandatory videos around donning and doffing of PPE, to include masks, gowns, suits," Beyor said.

Sanville is behind bars in Springfield. It was noted in court that not all corrections staff have followed the rules.

State authorities say the violent nature of Sanville's alleged crime, and the possible life sentence it carries, make him a threat to the public and that he needs to remain in jail.

"That is going to be a determination by the judge. The judge is specifically hearing each case -- meaning my case -- which is not this case," Willhoit said

The defense lawyers representing Sanville declined to comment on his case. It's not clear when the judge plans to issue a ruling.