Crime and Justice

Amid a new generation of prosecutors, Sarah George stands out

Sarah George

Prosecutor Sarah George speaks about the victims after Steven Bourgoin was found guilty of five counts of second degree murder for the 2016 crash that killed five teenagers on I-89 in Williston in Vermont Superior Court in Burlington on Wednesday, May 22, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — In the past year, Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George has frequently made headlines — from pioneering efforts to address the opioid epidemic to charging decisions in high-profile cases.

Her moves have faced scrutiny and sometimes clashed with views held by local and state political and law enforcement high-ups.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger and Police Chief Brandon del Pozo criticized her for a charging decision related to the Nectar’s shooting. Department of Public Safety Commissioner Tom Anderson and U.S. Attorney Christina Nolan strongly publicly disagree with her on methods addressing the opioid epidemic.

Most recently, Governor Phil Scott slammed George’s decision to dismiss three high-profile homicide or attempted murder cases in which defendants claimed the insanity defense. Scott said he did not understand the “logic or strategy” behind the dismissals and said he was concerned that the decisions place public safety at risk.

George is part of a new generation of prosecutors, both in Vermont and around the country, who are working to use their positions to advance criminal justice reforms that focus resources on rehabilitation. These efforts, which avoid incarceration as much as possible, often lead to tension and political pushback.

Other prosecutors in the state are increasingly approaching their positions with a similar approach as George, according to Robert Sand, a former Windsor County State’s Attorney and a professor at Vermont Law School.

“I think State’s Attorney George, both by the positions she’s taken, but more significantly by the market that she’s in, gets the most attention,” Sand said. “And also maybe has been the most overall reform-minded prosecutor.”

New Generation of Prosecutors

Scott appointed George to be the state’s attorney for Chittenden County in January 2017 after her predecessor, TJ Donovan, was elected attorney general. George had worked in Donovan’s office since 2011 after graduating from Vermont Law School.

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George said her interest in criminal justice reform was sparked when she earned a masters in forensic psychology at Castleton State College.

Sarah George

Gov. Phil Scott administers the oath of office for Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George in 2017. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

“I was very aware of the injustices within our system for people of color, poverty-stricken people, people with mental health issues, people with addiction issues,” she said. “Those were the majority of individuals in our criminal justice system, and that the system was really failing them on a lot of levels.”

George is a member of Fair and Just Prosecution, a group of prosecutors from around the country dedicated to changing the criminal justice system from inside.

The group aims to counter increasing incarceration rates it believes are caused by “the war on drugs, over-policing of poor and minority communities, and harsh directives from legislators, like mandatory-minimum sentencing laws.”

“We need to figure out other ways to rehabilitate people in our community to make them better community members, that is public safety,” George said. “Taking them out of the community and putting them in an incredibly violent and dangerous space, for however long, is not making them a better community member when they come out.”

In Chittenden County, this translates to diverting as many cases as possible through pre-charge programs, connecting people to resources, and setting individuals up with a pre-trial monitor who aides them in that process.

“At the end of the day, a system that takes care of the people who are struggling will keep them out of our system in the long run,” George said.

For a while, George said, her office was seeing some repeat offenders who had new charges after being diverted on earlier charges.

“It turned out that we just weren’t doing a good job at connecting the defendants to these programs quick enough,” George said. “So they were losing track of them.”

But George’s office worked with service providers to ensure a warmer hand-off, she said, and the amount of people returning to court has dropped.

Brandon del Pozo

Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo and Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George talk to reporters in 2017. File photo by Morgan True/VTDigger

Del Pozo said he sees George as part of the wider movement of prosecutors grappling with the power they wield and responding to calls from the public for reform.

But not enough time has passed under this new generation of prosecutors to determine what effects these changes will have on overall public safety, del Pozo said.

“We’re not going to know, as partners in the system, how our independent decisions affect each other until a lot more time has gone by,” he said.

Del Pozo said it is important for each institution in the criminal justice system to be mindful of the public perception of community safety. The public wants to know they will remain safe in light of less prosecution, decreased incarceration and an increased acceptance of the insanity defense, he said.

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“I think what people want to know is that all the partners in the government are doing everything they can to really keep people safe,” he said. “When suddenly one of the pieces of that puzzle changes its shape, they want to know how it fits into everything else, and if people are still going to be safe.”

George’s efforts to promote diversion and alternatives to incarceration are in line with efforts of state’s attorneys across Vermont, Essex County State’s Attorney Vince Illuzzi said.

“It’s a larger microcosm of what’s happening in the 14 counties,” he said. “All 14 counties have access to the same non-judicial ways to resolve criminal complaints, and you really have to take advantage of those programs.”

Much of these efforts are guided by the Legislature, which has focused on rehabilitation in the criminal justice system dating back to the 1970s, Illuzzi said.

Cara Cookson, a professor at Vermont Law School and former public policy director of Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services, agreed that George’s approach to cases was similar to the rest of the state’s prosecutors offices.

“There’s been a huge changing of the guard across the state, not just in Chittenden County,” she said. “There’s a new generation of lawyers coming in to be state’s attorney … and none of them are lock-them-up, law-and-order state’s attorneys.”

Cookson said Windsor County State’s Attorney David Cahill, Addison County State’s Attorney Dennis Wygmans, Orleans County State’s Attorney Jennifer Barrett and Rutland County State’s Attorney Rosemary Kennedy all fit the same mold.

Rory Thibault

Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault testifies before the House Judiciary Committee at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

George and the new generation of prosecutors are like their predecessors in that they are engaging with legislators on new policymaking, Sand said. But in the past, prosecutors have tended to use their stature to argue for “tough-on-crime” measures. That’s different now, he said.

“What’s unusual now is that we are seeing a new generation of prosecutors who are fulfilling their obligation to advocate law reform, but they’re doing it in a less punitive, more restorative, more community-based fashion,” Sand said. “And that is unsettling for people who somehow feel it necessary to preserve the status quo, even though the status quo is not working.”

Prosecutors have started to become more visible as public figures in the past 20 years, Sand said.

“Still to this day, there are many state’s attorneys who are perfectly happy to do their job and do their job well, but fly below the radar,” he said.

Sand said he thinks George, Cahill and Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault have been particularly outspoken in pushing for reform.

Public Safety, Political Pressure

In June 2018, George became the first prosecutor in the nation to declare that misdemeanor possession of the opioid withdrawal medication buprenorphine would not be prosecuted in her jurisdiction.

Studies show that the use of unprescribed buprenorphine is an indicator for seeking treatment, which lowers the likely of death, and that using buprenorphine is much safer than using heroin or fentanyl.

But many, including Vermont’s top federal prosecutor Christina Nolan, are skeptical of the push to loosen enforcement of the drug. Nolan was critical of legislative efforts to decriminalize buprenorphine this year.

“Decriminalization of unlawfully possessed buprenorphine encourages the ingestion of dangerous drugs without physician oversight and compliance monitoring,” she wrote in an op-ed.

George said while she and Nolan disagree on buprenorphine legalization, Nolan isn’t going out of her way to prosecute Chittenden County residents that George had declined to prosecute.

“It’s not like she’s going out and prosecuting people for it,” she said. “Although we publicly disagreed, it hasn’t yet created like an actual conflict with our different philosophies that we’ve had to deal with.”

That lack of conflict didn’t hold true when it came to George’s dismissal of a state case involving the insanity defense.

But, at a press availability after Nolan filed federal charges against one of the defendants, Nolan said despite their differences, she and George have a good working relationship.

“We have had a couple of good-faith differences on some issues,” Nolan said. “We get along, we work very well together.”

George also expressed strong support for supervised injection facilities, where people are able to inject heroin under medical supervision without the fear of legal consequences. Proponents argue these facilities reduce the risks of drug use and decrease the chances of overdose.

Anderson, who heads the state’s Department of Public Safety, released a statement expressing his opposition to safe injection sites shortly after George announced her support, saying they sent the “wrong message, at the wrong time, to the wrong people.” Scott also opposes safe injection sites.

More recently, George faced criticism after dismissing charges against Louis Fortier, charged with a murder on Church Street in Burlington in March 2017; Aita Gurung, charged for murdering his wife in October 2017 with a meat cleaver in Burlington; and Veronica Lewis, charged with attempted murder for shooting her firearms instructor in 2015 in Westford.

Scott strongly criticized George’s decision in a letter requesting Donovan review the cases, a request Donovan granted.

“The top priority of government is public safety, and I certainly don’t take this obligation lightly,” Scott wrote. “A civil society cannot function properly when a heinous violent crime is not properly adjudicated, and the public is put at risk.”

George argued that the state did not have sufficient evidence to rebut the defendant’s planned insanity defenses, and that the dismissal was “as close to justice” as possible.

Nolan filed federal firearms charges against Lewis, and while she said that decision should not be seen as a reflection on George, she said she believed the charges were necessary to ensure public safety.

George said she did not believe the community was safer after Nolan’s decision to file charges against Lewis, which took her out of the psychiatric facility where she had been receiving treatment and put her into federal custody.

“Who’s safer from that?” she said. “It just seems to me that that was a reaction based on fear that she might be back in this community.”

And the dismissal of these cases was not the first time George faced criticism from other officials for a decision not to move forward on a high-profile case.

Even similarly-minded local officials — del Pozo and Weinberger — took an extremely unusual step of criticizing George’s decision not to prosecute charges against Carl Martin, who was arrested on various charges relating to his actions the night of the February 2018 shooting outside of Nectar’s.

Miro Weinberger

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger (left) speaks at a news conference with Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George, UVM Medical Center Chief Medical Officer Dr. Stephen Leffler and Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo in 2017. Photo by Morgan True / VTDigger

Martin allegedly punched and pulled a gun on Rashad Nashid, 38, who allegedly fired two shots into a crowd in front of Nectar’s.

George declined to pursue aggravated assault, aggravated disorderly conduct and reckless endangerment charges against Martin after determining she believed he had been acting in self-defense of his brother, who Rashad Nashid allegedly threatened.

“Mr. Martin’s actions were irresponsible, dangerous and injudicious,” George wrote. “However, given the totality of the circumstances, his actions were not criminal.”

Del Pozo wrote that he was in “respectful but principled disagreement” with George’s decision in a press release.

“We felt a courtroom of Vermonters should consider whether or not Carl Martin needed to preemptively attack Nashid with a fist and a gun to protect his brother,” he wrote. “The consequences were too serious for the city to accept his word without a judicial process.”

Chelsi Parker, a bystander struck by one of the bullets Nashid fired, would not have been shot without Martin’s behaviors escalating the situation, del Pozo wrote.

George said that it was “very uncommon” for her office to prosecute both parties in a fight. Instead, they charge the primary aggressor and have the other party testify against them.

“We felt like Carl had a stronger defense that he was protecting his brother than Rashad would ever have had that he was protecting himself,” she said. “And if we had charged Carl Martin as well, we would not have been able to use him as a witness against Rashad Nashid.”

George was frustrated by del Pozo’s decision to publicly question her decision, but much more frustrated at Scott’s involvement following her dismissal of the insanity cases.

“Being questioned on a decision by the chief of police in the city that that crime occurred is a little more understandable than being questioned by a governor, who hadn’t even read the dismissal letters, and has no jurisdiction,” she said.

Del Pozo said he was “forthright and public” about his disagreement with George and both sides have moved on.

Since public safety is the top responsibility of government, del Pozo said that disagreements about crime, punishment, accountability and incarceration were destined to be political in nature.

“The differences that people have about these things are going to be political differences,” he said. “And not small ones, they are ones that people are going to take really seriously.”

Cookson, of VLS, said that she thought the pushback and focus on George was “curious.”

“She’s a hard worker, she’s really attentive to victims, she is attentive to law enforcement she works with,” she said. “I guess I’m missing where she would be of such concern to, sort of, the upper echelon.”

The “upper echelon” is Anderson, Cookson said, mentioning the disputes on opioids and the governor’s request for a review of the insanity cases.

Cookson said part of her job was at the Center for Crime Victim Services was to pay attention to the work of state’s attorneys to ensure they were doing right by victims, and that she had no concerns with George’s work.

George says she doesn’t know why she’s seemingly received more attention and pushback than Donovan, her predecessor.

Political future?

The Chittenden County state’s attorney job has long been a stepping stone into politics. Sen. Patrick Leahy held the position before his election to the U.S. Senate, and both Donovan and his successor as attorney general, Bill Sorrell, were the state’s attorney in Vermont’s largest county.

George isn’t interested, she says.

“I never wanted to be in politics, I still don’t,” she said. “I have no interest in being in any other position than the one I’m in. I don’t have any higher aspirations. I don’t want to be attorney general. I don’t want to be governor.”

She’s happy where she is, she says, and the ability to do her job without the political calculations involved in preparing to run for higher office is a huge benefit.

“I just think that too many people think about the outcomes, and the game and the moves you can make, and I just have no interest in that,” she said. “I don’t have time to think about how it could help or hurt me.”

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Aidan Quigley

About Aidan

Aidan Quigley is VTDigger's Burlington and Chittenden County reporter. He most recently was a business intern at the Dallas Morning News and has also interned for Newsweek, Politico, the Christian Science Monitor and the Republican-American newspaper in Waterbury, Connecticut. He is a 2018 graduate of Ithaca College, where he served as the editor-in-chief of The Ithacan, the student newspaper. He is a native of Trumbull, Connecticut.

Email: [email protected]

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