Gurung moved from mental health facility to prison as he awaits sentencing in meat cleaver murder

Aita Gurung sits at the defendant’s table during his murder trial in Chittenden County Superior…

Gurung moved from mental health facility to prison as he awaits sentencing in meat cleaver murder
Gurung moved from mental health facility to prison as he awaits sentencing in meat cleaver murder
Aita Gurung sits at the defendant’s table during his murder trial in Chittenden County Superior criminal court in Burlington on Tuesday, October 25, 2022. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

A Burlington man convicted earlier this month of killing his wife and severely injuring her mother in a meat cleaver attack will await sentencing from inside a jail rather than in the mental health facility where he had been receiving care.

Judge John Pacht said during Tuesday’s hearing in Chittenden County Superior criminal court that he believed he had no other option than to hold Aita Gurung in custody at a prison as a result of the verdict convicting him of first-degree murder and attempted second-degree murder.

“This is not without reservation,” Pacht said of his order holding Gurung in the custody of the state Department of Corrections without bail. 

Pacht also mentioned a note from the jury, which VTDigger was not immediately able to obtain following the hearing. 

“The court, frankly, does not have the power, much to the jury’s chagrin, to either place him in a psychiatric hospital or to sentence him to a psychiatric hospital,” Pacht said.   

The nearly four-week trial culminated with a jury verdict convicting Gurung after about 24 hours of deliberations. The trial featured expert witnesses who testified on whether Gurung was legally insane — and therefore not criminally liable — at the time of the 2017 attack.

Gurung has been held at the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin, a secure facility where he had been for most of the time the case was pending. He was discharged from that facility Tuesday ahead of the hearing. 

According to testimony and attorney statements Tuesday, Gurung was expected to be taken following the hearing to the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans, then transported to the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield. 

The Springfield prison is home to the corrections department’s acute mental health care unit. 

Colleen Nilsen, the corrections department’s chief of mental health services, said medical and mental health care providers in the corrections system have been in contact with the state Department of Mental Health regarding Gurung’s care and medication. 

“We’re prepared to continue that treatment as it outlined in the treatment plan from the hospital,” Nilsen said during the hearing.

“Is that treatment plan the same as he received when he was in the hospital or is it a new plan?” asked Sandra Lee, a public defender representing Gurung.

“This is the same treatment he received when he was in the hospital,” Nilsen said, adding, “Obviously it’s a correctional setting, but we’re going to provide the same treatment he was getting based on the treatment plan we were provided with.” 

Speaking later in the hearing, Lee said she still had concerns despite the testimony about her client’s care in a correctional facility.

“Clearly, being in an incarcerative setting is different than being in a state hospital. I don’t think anyone would contest that,” Lee said. 

Gurung, who is Bhutanese, had lived in a refugee camp in Nepal before immigrating to the United States with his wife and daughter.

He was convicted Nov. 3 of first-degree murder in the death of his 32-year-old wife, Yogeswari Khadka, at their home in Burlington on Oct. 12, 2017. In addition, Gurung was found guilty on a charge of attempted second-degree murder for seriously injuring his mother-in-law, 54-year-old Thulsa Rimal, in the same attack.

A sentencing date was not immediately set during Tuesday’s hearing. Gurung faces 35 years to life in prison on the first-degree murder conviction alone.

During the trial, the prosecution contended that Gurung had a history of abusing alcohol and physically assaulting his wife, including previously attempting to strangle her.

The defense argued Gurung was not guilty by reason of insanity. His lawyers presented evidence during the trial that Gurung had been released from the University of Vermont Medical Center less than two hours before carrying out the attack.

Gurung, according to his attorneys, spent five days leading up to the attacks at the medical center because “he knew his mind was not working” as a result of a “severe psychotic disorder.”

Prosecutors from the Vermont Attorney General’s Office said the attack took place after his wife refused to get him a beer during a meal, making him angry and feeling that he had been disrespected. 

The case was one of three that set off a political firestorm when Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George decided in 2019 to drop charges against Gurung and two other defendants in high-profile cases when she said she could not rebut insanity defenses based on expert opinions.  

George argued she could not overcome an insanity defense in Gurung’s case ​​because the state’s own expert had determined Gurung to be insane at the time of the killing.

Gov. Phil Scott prompted then-Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan to refile charges in all three cases that were dismissed, including Gurung’s case.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted Judge John Pacht.

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