Vermont’s top court ruled Friday that a man could be charged with first-degree murder in a 2010 Sheffield killing, contrary to a lower court decision.
Keith Baird was accused of murder in the killing of 78-year-old Mary “Pat” O’Hagan in her home. He also faces charges of burglary and kidnapping related to the case.
In 2016, a Superior Court judge dismissed the murder charge against Baird, ruling that prosecutors could not meet the necessary burden.
However, in a 4-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that because Baird allegedly helped plan the burglary with two others, and the three brought guns with ammunition, he could be charged with first-degree murder. Another man admitted pulling the trigger.
Justice John Dooley, who retired earlier this year, was the lone dissenting justice.
Baird was one of three men charged in connection with O’Hagan’s death.
According to the Supreme Court decision, Baird, Richie Fletcher and Michael Norrie met in an abandoned property near O’Hagan’s home on a September afternoon in 2010, where they got high on methamphetamine. While there, they came up with a plan to burglarize O’Hagan’s house late that night.
The three were acquainted with O’Hagan and knew she kept a key under her front mat. According to the Supreme Court decision, Baird initiated the idea of committing a burglary and suggested bringing along firearms. Originally the three decided they would each bring a gun, but only one would be loaded with ammunition.
They expected O’Hagan to be asleep, but she was still awake watching TV when they entered her house.
Norrie held a gun to the back of O’Hagan’s head while she was on her hands and knees, according to the Supreme Court decision. The other two men were ransacking the house when they heard two gunshots. When they arrived in the kitchen, Norrie held a still-smoking gun and stood over O’Hagan, who appeared dead.
The majority decision pointed to the men’s decision to bring guns and ammunition to the burglary as sufficient reason not to dismiss the charge.
“The very purpose of being armed, and of brandishing weapons, is to convey to the intended victim the belief that the guns are loaded and that serious and potentially deadly harm will result unless the victim complies,” the decision states.
The justices also said Baird was aware that O’Hagan was in significant peril when he saw Norrie holding his gun to her head.
“Despite this life-threatening situation, defendant did nothing to de-escalate the risk of harm to the victim and instead left the room to ransack the second floor of the house, leaving the victim on her knees at gunpoint,” the majority wrote.
Dooley, in his dissent, wrote that he was concerned the majority decision was “stretching the requirements” for the liability of an accomplice in a crime.
Though Baird agreed to rob O’Hagan, he intended to break into the house after she was asleep, according to Dooley. Baird also understood that only Fletcher’s gun would be loaded, so when Baird saw Norrie holding O’Hagan at gunpoint, he believed the weapon did not contain ammunition, the justice wrote.
Dooley questioned the other four justices’ reasoning about the significance of bringing firearms to the scene.
“The majority claims that using a weapon, even if unloaded, creates the potential for serious injury or death because there is a chance a weapon actually will be loaded,” Dooley wrote. “This is exactly the element-scope creep that prompts this dissent.”
The ruling means the case will go back to Superior Court and Baird will face a first-degree murder charge, along with other charges of burglary and kidnapping.
Allison Fulcher, who is representing Baird in the case, declined to comment on the decision because the litigation is pending.
Caledonia County State’s Attorney Lisa Warren did not return a call seeking comment Monday.
In 2015, Fletcher pleaded guilty to charges of kidnapping and burglary. Norrie pleaded guilty later that year to murder, burglary and kidnapping, according to The Burlington Free Press.