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Vermont Legislators Want To Reconsider Law For Attempted Crimes


Prosecutors in Vermont have dropped the most serious charges against an 18-year-old who threatened to shoot up his former high school. The case grabbed national headlines because the arrest came a day after the Parkland, Fla., shooting. Vermont Public Radio's Nina Keck reports the state is now grappling with the question of when a plan becomes a crime.

NINA KECK, BYLINE: The day of the Parkland tragedy, 18-year-old Jack Sawyer allegedly sent Facebook messages to a friend saying he 100 percent supported the killings and was planning to shoot up his own former high school. Sawyer's friend tipped off authorities. And the next day, Sawyer was arrested. Prosecutor Rose Kennedy charged him with multiple felonies, including attempted first-degree murder. She says his actions went beyond planning and posed a real threat.

ROSE KENNEDY: His moving back to Vermont, his buying the 12-gauge shotgun, buying the ammunition, moving money from his bank account to a bitcoin account so he could buy an assault weapon off the dark web...

KECK: And then there was the 31-page diary titled the journal of an active shooter where the defendant described in graphic detail how he planned to kill as many students as possible at Fair Haven Union High School. A lower court initially ruled there was enough evidence to hold Sawyer without bail. But the state Supreme Court disagreed, saying under Vermont law, preparing to do something isn't the same as attempting a crime. That ruling led to the felony charges being dismissed. Mark Gutel owns a cafe in Fair Haven, a small town with a picturesque Main Street near the New York border. He says people there are frustrated and angry.

MARK GUTEL: Because, you know, this is a serious crime against our community - against these kids. These kids are scared to death still. With this decision, what's it going to do for the next situation?

KECK: Dan Sedon, a longtime defense attorney in Vermont, sympathizes. But he believes the charges were too extreme, and he thinks the high court got it right.

DAN SEDON: Having dark fantasies and writing them down - not a crime. Purchasing a weapon - not a crime. Speaking perhaps recklessly but speaking to another person about some future intent - not a crime.

KECK: The Supreme Court said in its ruling that the legislature is tasked with enacting such laws as the people of Vermont think necessary. In other words - if the state wants to prosecute would-be shooters like Jack Sawyer before they act, they'll need new laws to do it. Elyza Bird, a senior at Fair Haven Union High School, traveled to Vermont's capital with other students to demand lawmakers do that.


ELYZA BIRD: Are you really prepared to wait for bullets to fly and people to lose their lives before you see that this is an issue that needs to be addressed?

KECK: Richard Sears, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, says lawmakers want to help. But he says prosecuting intent creates a dangerous, slippery slope.

RICHARD SEARS: So you have to be extremely careful when you're writing criminal law and taking away people's liberties. So it'll be focused on those who actually put fear into the hearts of Vermonters through their actions and not just writing something in a journal.

KECK: Sears believes the state should expand its domestic terrorism law to include mass shooters. That would create a new felony charge for threats on multiple people, but a new law cannot be used retroactively to prosecute Jack Sawyer. He remains in police custody, unable to pay his $100,000 bail. Sawyer still faces two misdemeanor charges of criminal threatening and carrying a dangerous weapon to commit serious injury or death. Together, they could mean up to three years in prison. For NPR News, I'm Nina Keck in Chittenden, Vt.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALBUM LEAF'S "RED EYE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.