Crime and Justice

Man sentenced to life without parole could get parole hearing in March under plea deal

Amy Fitzgerald, center, and her mother Ellen Zeltserman in an undated family photo. Photo courtesy David Zeltserman

A man who killed his wife by strangulation in 1993 could go before the Vermont Parole Board as soon as March after state prosecutors settled with him in his latest appeal.

Gregory Fitzgerald was convicted in 1994 of first-degree murder in the death of 30-year-old Amy Fitzgerald. Her body was found in a condo in Shelburne, where she had been living while pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Vermont. She also was a captain in the U.S. Army.

To evade getting caught, police said Fitzgerald had accomplices and an elaborate scheme to travel from Texas, where his wife believed he was enrolled in university. Instead, he had been dismissed from the University of Texas and had a secret girlfriend.

Amy Fitzgerald’s family believes he killed her to get a $100,000 life insurance policy. He was convicted at trial and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

He maintained his innocence then and in the decades since.

But on Jan. 12, the Vermont Superior Court reduced his sentence to 35 years to life as a result of a civil case he filed last year. In exchange, he admitted in court for the first time to strangling his wife and agreed not to pursue any more appeals. 

Fitzgerald, 64, had claimed his trial attorney failed to tell him two crucial pieces of information: First, if convicted at trial, he could be given a maximum sentence of life without parole. And second, that prosecutors had offered him a plea deal of 30 years to life on second-degree murder and a separate burglary charge, to be served at the same time — and he could ask the court for even less prison time. He presented evidence that included old correspondence.

The Chittenden County prosecutor’s office, led by State’s Attorney Sarah George, decided to settle with Fitzgerald after weighing the risks that he would prevail in the civil case or other appeals.

George, who is vocal about her opposition to life-without-parole sentences, said her office’s decision to settle with Fitzgerald was a legal decision and not political.

“Not believing in life without parole is part of me,” she said in an interview. “I would never make it on such a serious case just to fit some agenda.”

George said the risks included Fitzgerald’s potentially prevailing in his appeal and being sentenced to the terms of the 1994 plea offer — but without the guarantee he would stop lodging further appeals. 

In his federal appeal that was only closed after he was resentenced, she said the court could have granted Fitzgerald a new trial where he could walk away because of how old the case evidence is at this point.

If he were to be convicted at trial now, George thinks he likely would not be sentenced to life without parole again given the more restorative views in the criminal justice system.

“Obviously our hope is we win these, but we’ve lost appeals that we didn’t expect to lose,” she said. “This is, unfortunately, part of our appellate process.”

Fitzgerald’s lead trial attorney back in 1994, Peter Langrock, said he does not remember specific conversations he had nearly 30 years ago. But he conceded his client may remember the situation accurately.

“It’s highly unlikely,” Langrock said in an interview, “but I can’t say under oath that it’s impossible.” 

Langrock had already been working as a trial attorney for about three decades when he represented Fitzgerald. The two have maintained occasional contact. Langrock described his former client as a “model prisoner.”

Amy Fitzgerald’s survivors include her older brothers Dave and Alan Zeltserman. The men vigorously oppose Fitzgerald’s release and disagree with the state’s decision to settle with him, saying they would have wanted prosecutors to continue fighting his claims — even if it meant undergoing another trial.

“The evidence of guilt at trial was ‘overwhelming,’” said Alan Zeltserman, a former appellate attorney in Massachusetts who lives overseas. “I have no doubt that George and her office could have continued litigating the case and could have gone to trial, if the will was there.”

The brothers believe George’s decision to settle was driven by her progressive criminal justice stance.

“From quotes I've read from Sarah George, this sounds more like a personal crusade of hers to end life without parole,” said Dave Zeltserman, 62, who lives outside Boston. “I wish she spent more time trying to understand how cruel and heinous this murder was and cared more about the victims.”

The men said they did not know that the state’s attorney’s office had entered into a deal with Fitzgerald until two days before he was resentenced. Dave Zeltserman said prior to that day, the only time the office had gotten in touch with them was in August when a deputy state’s attorney told him about the civil case and reportedly described it as weak.  

George said her office’s negotiations with Fitzgerald, which gained momentum around October or November, wrapped up faster than expected. The speedy process also affected her office’s communications with Amy Fitzgerald’s family, she said.

She said the last thing her office wanted was to cause further hurt to the victim’s family. 

“It, obviously, is heartbreaking to me that the family is so upset about it and feels like this is a betrayal of them and certainly of Amy,” George said. 

With credit for good behavior and jail time before he was sentenced, Fitzgerald’s new sentence qualified him for parole on June 13, 2019, Department of Corrections records show.

The Vermont Parole Board’s director, Mary Jane Ainsworth, confirmed this date. She said Fitzgerald could get a hearing before the parole board as soon as March. At the hearing, the three board members will assess if he is fit to be released, and they could vote on the outcome that day.

But going before the board “doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to be paroled,” Ainsworth said.

She said people who are denied parole won’t get another hearing until the anniversary of their eligibility date the following year, unless the Department of Corrections asks the board to hear the case, usually based on a positive recommendation.  

Parole board data shows that in the past 10 years, the board granted parole an average of 64% in the cases it heard. This ranged from a low of 58% in 2014 and a high of 69% in 2020.

Zooming in to the most violent crimes listed under Vermont law — which the board classifies as the “Big 12” — parole was granted at a rate of 52% last year. This crime list include aggravated sexual assault, kidnapping and murder.

The parole board’s hearings are public proceedings. They’ve been held virtually since the coronavirus pandemic started.

When asked whether George plans to participate in Fitzgerald’s parole hearing, the prosecutor said she has not done so in the past and won’t attend his hearing.

Amy Fitzgerald’s brothers said they intend to speak, as is their legal right in these proceedings. They said they believe Fitzgerald is incapable of change and will victimize others if released.

“The murder was cold and calculated,” Alan Zeltserman said. “Fitzgerald's heinous crime devastated my parents and stole away my sister who had so much to offer to her country and the world.”

A decorated Army captain, she served in the First Gulf War and was one of the first U.S. soldiers in Iraq. There, she set up and ran a medical lab. She was awarded the Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award and volunteered locally while studying at UVM, her family said.

Before she was killed, she had been planning to give Fitzgerald a sailboat as a graduation gift that spring.

Correction: An earlier version of this story included incorrect ages for Dave and Alan Zeltserman.

Stay on top of all of Vermont's criminal justice news. Sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger's reporting on courts and crime.

 

Did you know VTDigger is a nonprofit?

Our journalism is made possible by member donations. If you value what we do, please contribute and help keep this vital resource accessible to all.

Tiffany Tan

About Tiffany

Tiffany Tan is VTDigger's Southern Vermont reporter. Before joining VTDigger, she covered cops and courts for the Bennington Banner from 2018 to 2021. Prior to that, Tiffany worked for the Rapid City Journal in South Dakota and spent more than 10 years working for newspapers and television stations in Manila, Singapore and Beijing.

Email: [email protected]

Send us your thoughts

VTDigger is now accepting letters to the editor. For information about our guidelines, and access to the letter form, please click here.

 

Recent Stories

Thanks for reporting an error with the story, "Man sentenced to life without parole could get parole hearing in Marc..."
  • Hidden
  • Hidden
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.