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Competency questions delay sentencing for Aita Gurung in meat cleaver murder case

BURLINGTON — A sentencing hearing Monday for a Burlington man convicted late last year of killing his wife and seriously injuring her mother with a meat cleaver was called off, as a judge agreed to a test of whether the man is competent to understand the proceeding.

A jury convicted Aita Gurung, 40, in November of first-degree murder and attempted second-degree murder following a nearly four-week trial during which his attorneys raised an insanity defense.

After about 24 hours of deliberation, the jury returned guilty verdicts against Gurung, setting the stage for a sentencing hearing where he faces up to life in prison.

Last week, the court scheduled a sentencing hearing for Monday but later changed it to a status conference as Gurung’s attorneys raised the issue of whether he’s competent enough to understand what was taking place.

Judge John Pacht said during Monday’s hearing that he would order a competency evaluation for Gurung by the state Department of Mental Health.

Attorney Sandra Lee, a public defender representing Gurung, told Pacht that her client’s mental state has worsened since he was sent to jail in November after his conviction. He had previously been receiving mental health care at the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin.

He has been housed at the Southern State Correctional Center in Springfield.

Lee said in conversations with Gurung she noticed a “decrease in his mood” and she reported having difficulty communicating with him, even through a Nepali interpreter. Gurung, who is Bhutanese, speaks Nepali.

Gurung, according to Lee, had reported that he sensed a “presence” around him at times when no one was there. Also, Lee said, Gurung reported people speaking Nepali outside his cell though no one there speaks Nepali.

Pacht said he would order a competency evaluation. “Hopefully, they’ll act on this quickly,” the judge said of the state Department of Mental Health.

Depending on the results, the judge said, a date would be set for sentencing.

Asked after the hearing Monday what would happen should the court-appointed evaluator determine Gurung is not competent, Assistant Attorney General Roe Kennedy, the prosecutor, replied, “We would probably have our experts examine him as well.”

Gurung faces 35 years to life in prison after his conviction for 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 of attempted second-degree murder for seriously injuring his mother-in-law, 54-year-old Thulsa Rimal, in the same attack.

The prosecution contended during the trial that Gurung had a history of abusing alcohol and physically assaulting his wife.

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

Gurung’s mental state has been heavily litigated ever since his arrest. After reaching a verdict, nine of the 12 jurors signed a letter stating that, although during the trial it wasn’t proven that Gurung met the test for insanity, it was their “unanimous opinion” that his mental disease “significantly influenced” the events leading to the charges against him.

“On behalf of myself and the members of the jury named below, I write to advocate strongly for continued hospitalization of Mr. Gurung in a secure psychiatric care facility rather than imprisonment in a correctional facility due to the severity of his mental illness,” one of the jurors wrote on behalf of the others.

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 challenge insanity defenses based on expert opinions.

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

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