BURLINGTON — Nearly two months after he delayed accepting a plea agreement in the six-year-old murder case against Louis Fortier over questions about the defendant’s competency, a Burlington judge agreed Monday to go ahead with it after hearing from an expert.
The plea deal will keep Fortier, 42, who was charged in the stabbing and killing of Richard Medina, 43, on Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace, in the state psychiatric hospital for the “foreseeable future.”
The move by Judge John Pacht on Monday resolves the last of three cases that sparked lengthy legal and political battles after Gov. Phil Scott intervened.
Dr. Renee Sorrentino, a forensic psychiatrist, told Pacht during a hearing in Chittenden County Superior criminal court Monday that she believed Fortier was competent and understood the proceedings.
She said she believed he would still pose a high risk of violence if released, and contended the best place to lodge him was the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin.
In accepting the plea deal between the prosecutor and Fortier’s defense, Pacht sentenced Fortier to 20 years to life in prison, with all but six years suspended. Fortier will be credited for the nearly six years he has served, mostly at the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin, since his arrest, meaning he will not spend more time in prison unless he violates the terms of his probation.
“I think Mr. Fortier is competent to enter a plea,” Pacht said.
How long Fortier will remain at the psychiatric hospital remains to be seen. Discharging him could require another court proceeding to determine whether he requires hospitalization and poses a risk of harm to himself or others.
Pacht said in court Monday that Fortier must remain hospitalized for the “foreseeable future.”
“I would imagine Mr. Fortier being in the custody of the Department for Mental Health for a long, long time,” Pacht said, “if not the remainder of his life.”
The judge added that he has been “specially” assigned to the case going forward so he could preside over any hearings regarding Fortier’s hospitalization.
Fortier pleaded no contest to an amended charge of second-degree murder in late February. Pacht initially declined to accept the deal because of concerns over Fortier’s competency.
At that hearing, Fortier talked about believing that the CIA had implanted a GPS device in his body to track him. He asked the judge if he could get an X-ray of his head, stating that he thought the device was under his eye.
“Right now, Dr. Sorrentino is clear, as is the commissioner of mental health, that the only proper place for Mr. Fortier to be given his ongoing mental health challenges is in the hospital,” Pacht said in court Monday.
“That structured environment whereby he is receiving therapeutic care as well as a clear medication regimen is what protects him and protects the community,” the judge added.
Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George had initially charged Fortier with first-degree murder following the stabbing in March 2017. She dropped the charge two years later, contending she could not counter an insanity defense after examinations determined Fortier was schizophrenic and insane at the time of the attack.
At the same time, George also dismissed two unrelated cases against other defendants — one for murder, the other for attempted murder — for similar reasons. Gov. Phil Scott called on then-Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan to review those three cases, after which Donovan took the unusual step of reviving prosecutions in each of them.
The state’s own expert in the refiled murder case found Fortier was insane at the time of the offense, prompting his attorney, David Sleigh, to file a motion to dismiss the case. That motion was pending at the time the parties reached the plea deal.
Assistant Attorney General Rose Kennedy, a prosecutor in the case, said in court in February the intent of the plea agreement was to give Fortier a “time served” sentence while keeping him on probation for the rest of his life under the supervision of the state Department of Corrections. That probation includes conditions regarding following mental health treatment orders.
Sam Fuentes, Medina’s brother, provided a victim impact statement before Pacht handed down the sentence and shared photos of Medina with the judge. Fuentes spoke of the difficulty of waiting so long to resolve the case and its effect on family members. He added that he was grateful the case was finally getting resolved.
“I just miss my brother,” he told the judge.