Can Intent Become A Crime? Fitting The Jack Sawyer Case Into Vermont Law

Apr 12, 2018

The Vermont Supreme Court has ruled that prosecutors did not have enough evidence to hold Jack Sawyer without bail – a ruling that may bolster calls by the defense to dismiss the case. The case has fascinated legal experts who say it is forcing the state to grapple with the difficult issue of when intent to do something becomes an actual crime.

Sawyer is the 18-year old Poultney man accused of a thwarted plot to shoot up Fair Haven Union High School.

Lawyers point out Vermont already sets a high bar when it comes to proving a crime has been attempted.

Dan Sedon, a long-time defense attorney in Vermont, not involved in the Sawyer case, says it becomes even harder when the case involves a teenager. “Because teenagers are to some extent prone to dramatic statements and dramatic gestures.”

Matthew Valerio, Vermont’s Defender General takes it a step further. “The bottom line is there likely wasn’t even a crime here,” he said.

But Rutland State’s Attorney Rose Kennedy argued in court that had the state waited until Sawyer showed up at the school and began shooting, people would have died.

Administrators at Fair Haven Union High School say they’re extremely disappointed with the court’s ruling and have had to reassure parents that they’ve got adequate security in place.

The case against Sawyer

So, let’s go back over how this case unfolded.  

Sawyer was arrested in February, just after the deadly high school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

A photo of Jack Sawyer taken in February by the Vermont State Police.
Credit courtesy of the Vermont State Police

He was charged with four felonies including: attempted aggravated murder, attempted first-degree murder and attempted aggravated assault with a deadly weapon – crimes which carry a potential life sentence with the possibility of parole.

Prosecutors have pointed to the teen’s statements and actions as proof of his intent:

  • Facebook messages Sawyer allegedly sent to a friend saying he approved of the Parkland shooting and was planning to shoot up his own former high school. 
  • Social media posts attributed to Sawyer, under the pseudonym Klebold. That’s a reference to Dylan Klebold, one of the shooters involved in the deadly 1999 Columbine attack that Sawyer was reportedly fascinated by.

Prosecutors say Sawyer moved back to Vermont from a school for troubled teens in Maine and in February he bought a shotgun and ammunition allegedly, to carry out his plan.

And then there’s the 31-page diary Sawyer allegedly wrote titled, “Journal of an Active Shooter.”

An entry dated Dec. 1, 2017, references Fair Haven Union High School Resource Officer Scott Alkinburgh:

The biggest thing I’m trying to figure out right now is how can I get as far as I can into the shooting before cops bust me first and shoot me dead. I know that I’m going to have to take officer Scott out first, but what’s the best way? I’m thinking that I’ll go in a few days prior to scope things out and see if he can typically be found in his office.

I’m intending to just blow his f**king head off before he can even draw his gun or think about what’s happening, but I can only hope with that one. If he kills me first, all of this will be pointless since I won’t make the impact and chaos I plan to create. I don’t think it’ll be too big of an issue figuring out though. Probably just shooting his head point blank is the best way to go.

Vermont Superior Judge Thomas Zonay ruled last month that the defendant’s words and actions went beyond mere preparation and warranted continued incarceration without bail.

Reaction to the Supreme Court's ruling

Matthew Valerio, Vermont’s Defender General, says he wasn’t surprised to see Judge Zonay’s ruling overturned by the Supreme Court.

“I can sit around all day with a list of the people I don’t like and talk about the ways I’d like to hurt them and what I’d do if I had the chance,” said Valerio.

“But that’s not a crime that’s fantasy,” he added.

David Sleigh, a long-time defense attorney in Vermont who’s not connected to the Sawyer case,  agrees and applauds the high court’s decision.

“They got the law exactly right and didn’t give in to the temptation of abandoning 100 years of precedent to address a situation that’s caused widespread panic,” he said.

Sleigh believes had the court ruled otherwise it would have set a dangerous precedent. “Where does this expansion stop when we have high publicity events that we don’t want to see re-occur, and where does the intersection between preventing possible wrong bump up against the interference with someone’s ability to think and speak?” wondered Sleigh.

Jack Sawyer seated during a hearing in Rutland Superior Court in February.
Credit Glenn Russell / Burlington Free Press / Pool File

“I think that’s a serious concern," he went on, "And I think Vermont has distinguished itself over the years with a very high bar to prove attempts in these sorts of situations.”

Sleigh and others say the supreme court’s ruling effectively reverses Judge Zonay’s earlier decision.

Kelly Green, Sawyer’s defense attorney says a renewed motion to dismiss has already been drafted.

Rutland State’s Attorney Rose Kennedy, who’s been prosecuting Sawyer, didn’t respond to requests for comment, but told the Rutland Herald she was incredibly disappointed in the supreme court’s decision and its interpretation of Vermont law. 

The supreme court addressed that very issue in what some legal experts say is a unique addendum to their ruling.

The court wrote in closing, “The Legislature is tasked with enacting such laws as the people of Vermont think necessary. This court is bound to apply the law in agreement with statute and this Court’s own earlier decisions. The Legislature can, if it chooses, deviate from this long-established standard by passing a law revising the definition of attempt.”

Vermont defense attorney Dan Sedon believes that’s exactly what lawmakers need to do so the courts have another option, a charge that would fall between disorderly conduct and attempted murder. “We ought to come up with something akin to ‘you can’t shout fire in a crowded theater’ and ‘you can’t talk about shooting up schools,’ said Sedon, adding, “there’s no legitimate speech content there that’s justified by the first amendment.”

Other states, like Minnesota and New Jersey, have enacted such laws involving terroristic threats and Sedon believes it may be time for Vermont to follow suit.