Crime and Justice

Supreme Court ruling revives insanity challenge in meat cleaver murder case

Aita Gurung
Aita Gurung appears in Vermont Superior Court in Burlington on Dec. 20, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The case of a man accused of killing his wife with a meat cleaver in Burlington more than three years ago is heading back to a Chittenden County courtroom.

The Vermont Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the state’s Attorney General’s Office should be able to have a hearing to show why a new mental health evaluation of Aita Gurung is warranted regarding his sanity at the time of the offense.

The Attorney General’s Office has contended, among other points, that an earlier evaluation of Gurung, conducted by a prosecution expert who found him insane at the time of the crime, did not employ an interpreter in the man’s native Nepali language. 

Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan referred to the high court’s ruling Thursday as a “win” for the prosecution, which overturns an earlier ruling by Chittenden County Judge Samuel Hoar Jr. 

“The trial court’s order was reversed and remanded by the Supreme Court and we now get to present our expert as to why we think we should be able to have a new examination,” Donovan said. “That’s important to our case development.” 

The ruling Thursday by the Vermont Supreme Court is the latest twist in the long-running case.

It dates back to Oct. 12, 2017, when Gurung was accused of using a meat cleaver to kill his wife, Yogeswari Khadka, 32, and seriously injure his mother-in-law, Thulsa Rimal, at their home in the Old North End of Burlington.

He faces charges of first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder. Gurung, 37, is currently being housed at the state psychiatric facility in Berlin. 

Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio, whose office represents Gurung, said Thursday that he was surprised by the high court’s decision.

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“To me, this is expert shopping,” Valerio said. “The bottom line is that there have been two bites at the apple already, they didn’t like the result, so now they want a third bite.” 

He added that while the Vermont Supreme Court ordered that a hearing take place, it didn’t formally decide on the matter of whether a new evaluation should be permitted.

“It’s kind of a legal way around having to make that decision,” Valerio said of the high court ruling. “They sent it back to the trial court and said you need to make findings about why a third one isn’t appropriate.” 

According to the Attorney General’s Office, Gurung is a “limited English-proficient individual” and has had two interpreters at each of his court appearances. Since that earlier evaluation did not include the use of an interpreter, the Attorney General’s Office argued, that throws the conclusion into doubt. 

Hoar had previously issued a ruling not allowing the Attorney General’s Office to move forward with another evaluation.

“We conclude,” the Vermont Supreme Court ruling issued Thursday stated, “that the trial court abused its discretion in precluding the AG from presenting its expert testimony and remand for the trial court to conduct a new hearing at which the parties may present evidence as to the reasonableness of a mental examination.”

Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George dismissed the charges against Gurung last year. In dismissing the charges, George said she determined she would not be able to counter an insanity defense based on expert evaluations that had already been conducted, including one done for her office while it was still prosecuting the case deeming Gurung insane at the time. 

Donovan then refiled charges against Gurung last fall. That came after Gov. Phil Scott asked Donovan to review that case and two others, prompting critics to say the renewed prosecution was politically motivated.  

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Alan J. Keays

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