Friday, February 18, 2011

Don't Kill Bill

State v. Miles, 2011 VT 6 (mem.)

Defendant Jesse Miles appeals the District Court’s order revoking his probation and imposing the underlying sentence of three to nine years in prison for aggravated domestic assault, retail theft, and petit larceny.  The basis for revoking probation was a violation of probation (VOP) charge that the State brought because Mr. Miles allegedly engaged in “violent or threatening behavior.”  For those of you who thought that the State has sufficient and well-run systems in place for the mentally ill, the facts of this case may surprise you.

Defendant was sentenced for his underlying crimes in June 2006.  By November 2006, he was back in court with his first VOP complaint.  After he denied the basis of the complaint, the court ordered Defendant held without bail, appointed a guardian ad litem, and ordered that he undergo an inpatient psychiatric exam.  It is not entirely clear, but it appears that Defendant was held at either the psychiatric wing of a correctional facility or the Vermont State Hospital from this point until about September 2009—possibly longer.  During that three-year stint a second VOP complaint was filed against Defendant based on statements that he made while being treated by the State.  This second complaint is the subject of the present appeal and decision.  No word in the record as to what happened to the November 2006 VOP complaint. 

The hearing on the second VOP complaint occurred in September 2009 after Defendant was determined to be competent to stand trial.  According to the facts recounted by the SCOV, the basis for the VOP complaint for violent and threatening behavior is as follows.  While he was in the mental health unit of a correctional facility, Defendant was being treated for an injury to his finger by a nurse and a volunteer assistant.  During this, he told the volunteer that he wanted to kill a man named Bill from Evergreen.  Once the volunteer reported this to a supervisor, the supervisor had a further discussion with Defendant about Bill.  Defendant said that he wanted to kill Bill Brown from Evergreen Counseling because Bill Brown had touched him inappropriately at some point more than a year earlier.  He proceeded to explain that Bill kept getting into his head through the television and through thoughts and that the earth goddess had visited Defendant and told him that killing Bill would be okay.  Defendant also said that he had a plan for how he would kill Bill Brown, though he did not explain his plan.  On the basis of these conversations, the State decided that Defendant was engaging in violent or threatening behavior and filed the VOP complaint.

In deciding this one, the SCOV starts with the general rules for probation revocation: the State has the burden of proof and must prove the violation by a preponderance of the evidence; if the State can get that part done, then the probationer has the burden of persuasion to prove that the failure to comply with the probation condition was not willful, but instead was a result of factors beyond his or her control.  The trial court’s ruling on a VOP charge is then a mixed conclusion of fact and law based on a factual determination of the probationer’s actions and a legal determination that the actions violated the terms of the probation.  Using this framework, the SCOV concludes that the State never got out of the starting blocks and it reverses the trial court’s order. 

In short, the SCOV heard the facts as presented by the trial court, which were reportedly undisputed, and concluded that the facts fell far short of establishing that Defendant could have been willfully making any threats.  In addition to the patently bizarre conversation about Bill Brown, the State’s witnesses apparently testified that Defendant had previously made other statements that might fall outside the bounds of conversation topics generally thought to be sane—namely, statements about vampires, blood, and devil worship.  Furthermore, the State never established that anyone named Bill Brown who worked at Evergreen Counseling even existed so as to be the target of Defendant’s alleged threats.  Based on all of these factors, the SCOV said that even if Defendant did not raise an insanity defense, if the State did not offer any reason “to disregard, discount or distinguish defendant’s stated delusions . . . it cannot be preponderantly evident that he was culpable in the sense that his declared intent to harm another was deliberate rather than the product of mental illness.”  In other words, all of the evidence points to the conclusion that this man was nuts-o when he said this stuff about Bill Brown, and since the State didn’t offer any path away from that conclusion, there is no way we can agree that Mr. Miles willfully violated his probation.  The burden of persuasion never shifted to Mr. Miles, the State simply failed to make a threshold case.

If this decision is leaving you worried that the criminally insane will be forever free to wander the streets because they are too crazy to be locked back up, the SCOV offers a few parting words of comfort at the close of the opinion.  First, the SCOV is not holding “that a delusional statement cannot constitute an actual threat”; second, the SCOV is not holding that “some delusions necessarily render a declarant incapable of violating a probation condition” that forbids violent and threatening behavior.  Don’t worry, the SCOV seems to be saying, we aren’t opposed to taking the mentally ill’s threats seriously.  The State, however, is going to have to work a bit harder next time. 

It is just another challenge for change, state workers, challenge for change.  

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