Part 2: This Teen Planned A School Shooting. But Did He Break The Law?

May 29, 2019
Originally published on May 29, 2019 5:01 pm

The 2018 arrest of Vermont teenager Jack Sawyer raised some big legal questions. Among them: At what point does a thought — or even a plan — become a crime?

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Should someone be allowed to think, quote, "I want to shoot up my old school" or write that down in a journal? What if they did that and then bought a gun? Those are the big legal questions raised by the arrest of Vermont teenager Jack Sawyer. In 2018, authorities accused him of attempted murder. Our colleagues at Vermont Public Radio have been reporting on this case and how it touched on a fundamental tension at the heart of our criminal justice system. At what point does a thought or even a plan become a crime? Here's Part 2 of our series with reporters Nina Keck and Liam Elder-Connors.

LIAM ELDER-CONNORS, BYLINE: When Jack Sawyer was arrested, he told detectives he wanted to set a new record - highest death count for a school shooter, more than 32 people. Detectives recorded that conversation. And though the audio is garbled, you can hear Sawyer make a chilling statement. If he's going to die, that's the way he'd want to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACK SAWYER: Like, if I do ever die, it's like I would want it to be that way.

ELDER-CONNORS: Sawyer also says his arrest would only delay his plan because that's how he's set on dying.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAWYER: This year, next year or, like, a few years, but, like, probably at some point, I mean, because, like, that's just the way I'm set on, like, even dying.

ELDER-CONNORS: At the time, detectives didn't know Sawyer's full mental health history, that he'd spent time in four different psychiatric facilities before he was 17.

NINA KECK, BYLINE: Prosecutor Rose Kennedy charged Sawyer with four felonies, including attempted aggravated murder, which carries the same sentence as an actual murder charge in Vermont - life in prison with no possibility of parole.

ROSE KENNEDY: I believed his intent, and I believed I had to act.

KECK: Kennedy says she didn't seek to have Sawyer committed because she didn't have access to his mental health records, and there was no guarantee the court would grant a civil commitment. She asked that he be held without bail, which a lower court agreed to. In Fair Haven, where Sawyer allegedly planned to carry out his attack, many said that made them feel safe.

ELDER-CONNORS: But some legal experts felt Kennedy had gone too far. They worried this would push the state down a slippery slope of prosecuting thought.

JARED CARTER: In this country, typically, we criminalize acts, not thoughts.

ELDER-CONNORS: Jared Carter is an assistant professor at Vermont Law School, and he points to a landmark 1906 case about a Vermont prisoner convicted of attempting to escape. Vermont's Supreme Court overturned that ruling.

CARTER: I think many people might say, well, wait a minute. The guy was collecting hacksaw blades to break out of prison. Why isn't that enough? And I think the reason is because he might have had that design, he might have had that idea, he might have purchased some blades, but he hadn't actually done anything.

ELDER-CONNORS: Jack Sawyer's defense attorneys made a similar case. They argued their client didn't actually attempt any of the crimes he was charged with - an argument that eventually made its way to the Vermont Supreme Court.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good afternoon, Your Honors. The matter before the court this afternoon is the case entitled State v. Sawyer.

KENNEDY: If it may please the court, I take no pleasure in talking to you today about an 18-year-old charged with the most serious crime in Vermont.

KECK: That's prosecutor Rose Kennedy again. In early April 2018, she laid out her case. She said that because Sawyer provided so much detail about his intent to murder students, his move back to Vermont from Maine, where he'd been living, actually began the active murder. But Justice Harold Eaton asked...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAROLD EATON: Once that happens, it doesn't matter what he does after that. He could say, you know, I've changed my mind, throws the gun away, goes back to Maine. He's still guilty.

KENNEDY: Under Vermont case law, yes.

ELDER-CONNORS: But Sawyer's defense attorney disagreed. He pointed out that Sawyer was arrested almost a month before the date he'd chosen for his alleged attack. The high court ruled in Sawyer's favor. The justices said Sawyer may have prepared to commit a crime, but that isn't the same as attempting a crime. And that meant he could be released on bail. Many in the community were alarmed by the ruling.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARLEY DAYTON: I am a student who feels scared, hopeless and angry.

ELDER-CONNORS: Fair Haven student Harley Dayton testified to state lawmakers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAYTON: I am 1 of 400 students who worries about going to school because of what the outcome may be if Jack Sawyer gets released on any given day.

KECK: The ruling led prosecutor Kennedy to dismiss all four felony charges. She had added two misdemeanors to keep his case in court, but they were much less serious. At the time, they carried at most three years in prison combined.

ELDER-CONNORS: Sawyer's family quickly posted $10,000 in bail. And in late April 2018, the 18-year-old walked out of jail. He agreed to check himself into a psychiatric hospital, and the court ordered him to stay away from Fair Haven Union High School and Angela McDevitt, his friend who alerted the police. Later that summer, Sawyer's lawyers were able to move his case to family court, which would keep it confidential and provide more treatment options. Prosecutor Rose Kennedy says she respects the Supreme Court ruling, but she wonders what will happen when the next Jack Sawyer comes along.

KENNEDY: There is still a chasm in the case law in Vermont. There's got to be a place where law enforcement should be able to act to stop a horrific crime from occurring that's a lot sooner on this continuum than when someone actually shows up to commit the act.

KECK: But at the very bottom of the Vermont Supreme Court's decision, the judges state that they only interpret the laws as they're written. It's up to lawmakers, the justices write, to change Vermont's attempt laws. Almost immediately, state lawmakers did take this up. About three months after Sawyer's arrest, the legislature passed a new domestic terrorism law.

ELDER-CONNORS: Some states have been able to charge teens who've threatened violence by accusing them of making terroristic threats, something akin to yelling fire in a crowded theater. Marsha Levick is chief legal officer at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. She says even with those statutes, it's difficult to know when something is a real threat.

MARSHA LEVICK: We have struggled as a country, across the country, different state laws, trying to articulate the permissible boundaries of how we can punish terroristic threats.

ELDER-CONNORS: More than a year after Sawyer's arrest, his case was resolved. The 19-year-old was adjudicated as a youthful offender for carrying a dangerous weapon - a misdemeanor.

KECK: Normally, we wouldn't know this. Family court matters are confidential. But lawyers on both sides and Sawyer's family felt it was important to update the community on his whereabouts, and the judge agreed. Lyn Wolk told NPR her son was transferred in late April to a secure residential treatment facility outside the state. But he'll remain under the supervision of Vermont state agencies until his 22nd birthday.

In Fair Haven, many community members remain torn. Some think the courts got it wrong. Most want Sawyer to get help. But almost everyone is eager to put this story behind them. It hasn't been easy. Some students and five staff members left Fair Haven Union directly because of what happened. Social studies teacher Julia Adams stayed.

JULIA ADAMS: Yeah. Do I have residual anger? Yeah. You don't threaten my kids in my classroom or my colleagues.

KECK: Do you worry that he might carry out his threat at some point?

ADAMS: Yeah because who knows if he'll get the help that he needs or if anything will ever change with him. If it doesn't, then, you know, you don't take a threat lightly anymore.

KECK: Adams says there is no closure. You just try to move forward. For NPR News, I'm Nina Keck in Chittenden, Vt.

ELDER-CONNORS: And I'm Liam Elder-Connors in Colchester, Vt.

SHAPIRO: This story was adapted from Vermont Public Radio's JOLTED podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.