Regional Report: Former Rutland City Attorney Found Guilty In Fatal Hit-And-Run

Mar 20, 2015

A Rutland jury found Christopher Sullivan guilty Thursday of two felony counts related to the hit-and-run death of a Mendon woman in 2013.

The former longtime attorney for the city was ordered jailed on $500,000 bail by a judge who said he would “likely” face jail time at his future sentencing.

The three-day trial ended Thursday morning after the defense called two witnesses who said they saw Sullivan leave their home at around 7:45 p.m. on April 10, 2013, and that he did not seem intoxicated.

Minutes later, Sullivan struck and killed Mary Jane Outslay, 71, as she crossed Strongs Avenue in downtown Rutland.

After about two hours of deliberation, jurors returned guilty verdicts on felony counts of driving drunk during a fatal crash and leaving the scene of a fatal crash — offenses that each carry sentences of one to 15 years.

Sullivan, 54, who served in the Rutland City attorney’s office for 19 years, stood stone-faced next to his defense attorney as the verdict was read and each member of the jury was polled for their vote.

After the verdict, the two prosecutors who tried the case requested that Sullivan be jailed without the option of posting bail.

“There’s no longer a presumption here that bail is appropriate,” Assistant Attorney General Evan Meenan said. “Now there’s an increased risk of flight.”

Meenan argued that Sullivan had already demonstrated a willingness to flee when he left the scene of the crash that killed Outslay.

“Now, he’s facing serious convictions with the potential of serving up to 30 years in jail,” the prosecutor said.

But defense attorney Barry Griffith said Sullivan, who has strong ties to the community, should be allowed to remain free on the $10,000 unsecured appearance bond and other conditions which he has abided with since his arraignment in May 2013.

“He grew up here, he has a wife and family and a business here and he’s been out for 23 months ... with no violations,” Griffith said. “There’s no indication that he’s a risk of flight.”

He added that police have conducted sobriety checks at Sullivan’s home roughly 200 times since he was charged.

But Judge Theresa DiMauro said the jury convictions changed the legal outlook for Sullivan.

“It’s a different situation now,” the judge said. “In pretrial, a presumption of innocence clearly applies. That presumption has evaporated now.”

DiMauro, who will preside over Sullivan’s future sentencing hearing, said the “likelihood of jail is high” and that prospect warranted setting high bail.

“These two offenses likely carry periods of incarceration, and that’s something that Mr. Sullivan has not experienced in the past and that will likely weigh on him,” she said, setting bail at $500,000.

In addition to bail, the judge set strict conditions of release if he is released from jail, including a restriction against leaving Rutland County, a ban on driving and a requirement that he report once daily to the Rutland County Sheriff’s Department.

Sullivan was taken to jail from the Rutland courthouse, and remained behind bars as of 7 p.m.

The jury verdict concluded a two-year case that shocked and outraged many city residents.

Prosecutors contended that Sullivan’s ability to drive was impaired by the six or seven alcoholic beverages he consumed over a 2½-hour period leading up to the crash.

During closing arguments Thursday, Assistant Attorney General Ultan Doyle argued that the only explanation for Sullivan’s failure to see or react to Outslay or to stop after the crash was because he was intoxicated.

At the beginning of his remarks to the jury, Doyle quoted a statement Sullivan made to police the day after the crash when he identified himself as the driver.

“He said ‘I just wish I made the right decision at the time and stopped. I was confused,’” Doyle said, quoting Sullivan. “That’s what he told police. Ladies and gentlemen the defendant failed to stop that night because he was under the influence of alcohol and he’s a lawyer who has defended DUI cases and he knew the way the investigation would work.”

However, Griffith said rain, glare, darkness and other factors made it difficult for Sullivan to perceive what was in the road. Griffith also argued that a pharmacologist called by the prosecution to testify about an estimate for Sullivan’s blood-alcohol content on the night of the crash and the effects the alcohol would have had on his driving, lacked the background to testify on DUI cases and relied on studies that were not recognized standards.

The prosecution’s expert estimated Sullivan had a BAC of no less than 0.044 percent — well below the 0.08 legal limit to operate a motor vehicle in Vermont.

However, under Vermont law prosecutors only had to prove that Sullivan’s ability to drive was diminished to any extent by alcohol and the pharmacologist testified that Sullivan’s reactions during and after the crash were strong indicators that alcohol was a factor.

Griffith had a different view.

“He simply had no time to react,” the defense lawyer said in his closing remarks.

He argued that after arguing that glare, darkness and the lack of contrast between Outslay’s white coat and the reflected street lights behind her could have made it impossible for Sullivan to see her until it was too late. “This is simply a tragic, unavoidable accident and, ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you that is what we have here — a tragic accident.”

This story first appeared in the Rutland Herald. Reporter Brent Curtis spoke with VPR's Mitch Wertlieb for our Friday Regional Report.