After Bennington murder, lawmakers mull changes to competency, insanity in court

After Bennington murder, lawmakers mull changes to competency, insanity in court

MONTPELIER, Vt. (WFFF) — In the Vermont Legislature, lawmakers are considering changes in how someone is determined competent to stand trial, as well as the use of insanity as a defense in court.

S.3 would allow the prosecution to have its own psychiatrist examine a defendant when a court-ordered examiner has found them incompetent to stand trial. The bill would also establish procedures for notifying victims of crime when the defendant is discharged from a mental health treatment facility if the case involves certain serious offenses.

Kelly Carroll, a Vermont woman who lost her daughter in January when she was killed in downtown Bennington, testified before the Senate Committee on Judiciary in support of the bill. “Just because one person says that somebody is not competent doesn’t mean that they should be able to get away with first-degree murder, and that’s what happens,” she said.

Emily Hamann, 26, was walking along a river walkway just before noon on January 18 when 32-year-old Darren Pronto allegedly tackled her and slashed her throat. A family member of Pronto said he was recently diagnosed with schizophrenia and had carved “murder time” into his dining room wall.

Pronto was arrested, arraigned, and later found incompetent to stand trial. “There were two video surveillance cameras. There ended up being a second witness. There was a third camera with still photos. And he’s going to get away with premeditated first-degree murder because there’s a disconnect in the law,” Carroll said.

Pronto apparently had a criminal history. Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage told lawmakers that when past victims heard he was found incompetent, there were a lot of questions. “A victim contacted my victims’ advocate pleading to know where he is now,” Marthage said. “The response I got from Attorney Morris at the time was ‘I can’t tell you,’ and that’s not okay.”

Marthage said addressing that uncertainty is one of the most important aspects of the bill. “When someone has been charged with a crime and they are found not competent, the crime is essentially dismissed, and we definitely need to know when they are deemed to return to competency,” she said. “We can notify victims.”

In addition to the two major changes listed above, the bill would require a hearing to be held in the Family Division of Vermont Superior Court to determine if the committed person is no longer in need of treatment, and also require that the State’s Attorney is notified.

Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) said Carroll’s testimony, advocacy and courage were important in this process. He also commented more broadly on Pronto’s behavior before the incident. “When you don’t deal with problems, they get bigger and bigger,” he said. “I think there’s a history here of not addressing his mental illness, or his violent behavior and threats.”

S.3 was a collaboration between a handful of legislatures and the Vermont Attorney General’s Office. It’s not the first time something like it has been proposed, but a previous attempt never made it to a full vote. In January, Hamann’s friends and family gathered for a vigil in Bennington, holding candles and posters that read “Justice for Emily.” A fundraising page was also launched to help raise money for funeral costs.

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