Whether the case against Jack Sawyer, the Poultney man accused of plotting to shoot up Fair Haven Union High School, will be moved from criminal court to family court remains unclear – even though it appears a hearing on the question may have been held Thursday.
"May" is the key word here, because no one involved in the case would comment, and anything that occurs in the court’s family division is confidential. So about all you'll hear from court clerks is: "It's classified."
Legal experts say that’s on purpose, to protect young defendants.
But the lack of information is frustrating for many who have been directly impacted.
“The fact that this case may be sealed to the public is hard to swallow and troublesome,” said Brooke Olsen-Farrell, the superintendent of the Addison-Rutland Supervisory Union, which oversees Fair Haven Union High School.
In July, in part because of newer science on brain development, Vermont’s youthful offender statute was expanded to include individuals age 21 and younger. That meant Sawyer, who turned 19 this month, was eligible.
“It seems like every time you turn around there is a new twist,” said Olsen-Farrell. “First, due to inadequate laws and second due to new laws, where perhaps all of the consequences weren’t thoroughly thought through.”
The state dropped its original attempted murder charges earlier this year. In April, Sawyer was released from jail on $10,000 bail. He's pleaded not guilty to two remaining misdemeanor charges that together carry a sentence of up to three years in prison.
Sawyer’s defense attorneys want those charges handled out of the public eye in family court, where a broader array of mental health treatment options are available.
Longtime Vermont defense attorney David Sleigh, who’s not involved in the case, approves the changes to the youthful offender statute, but said providing the public some information in a case like Sawyer’s makes sense, since up until now it's been public and widely covered by the media.
"Knowing that the case has been granted youthful offender status, even if that’s all we’re told, goes a long way to explain to the public what’s going on ... That's a legitimate area of public interest that does not adversely impact on the treatment goals that the juvenile court has,” Sleigh said.
Rutland County State’s Attorney Rose Kennedy said last month she opposed having Sawyer's case moved to family court, believing the risk to the public was great and warranted open proceedings.
Regardless of the outcome, Olsen-Farrell said she continues to believe that Fair Haven Union is one of the safest schools in the state, if not the country. The new school year begins next week.