By James Fite
Just days after the shooting in Parkland, Florida, Vermont teen Jack Sawyer was arrested for allegedly plotting to shoot up the Fair Haven Union High School. Sawyer was held without bail and charged with aggravated attempted murder, attempted first-degree murder, and attempted aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Now, Jack Sawyer can go home, as the Vermont Supreme Court decided that he couldn’t be held, as there isn’t sufficient evidence he committed a real crime. This young man’s plot was so shocking, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott cites it as a major motivation for his recent gun control laws. So, what would make the state’s high court set him free?
Fair Haven police were tipped off by some concerned citizens that 18-year-old Jack Sawyer of Poultney, Vermont had been acting strangely and that he had purchased a shotgun and made threats against the Fair Haven Union High School. Police Chief Bill Humphries said that they spoke to Sawyer, but that he said the shotgun was for target practice and that he hadn’t made any threats against the school recently. “We had found no probable cause to make an arrest,” Humphries said.
However, the next day, a juvenile from New York told the police about a text from Sawyer, which allegedly read: “Just a few days ago I was still plotting on shooting up my old high school.” He also supposedly expressed his support for the Nikolas Cruz, the shooter from Parkland, calling the shooting natural selection taken up a notch. This the police considered probable cause enough, so they made the arrest.
Authorities claim to have found a journal titled “The Journal of an Active Shooter,” which included lists of weapons to buy, plans of how to carry out the shooting, and a list of students – both present and past – that he wanted dead. Additionally, Sawyer allegedly confessed to his entire nefarious plot while in police custody – even saying that the shotgun he recently purchased was, in fact, for the school shooting.
Prosecutors also cite Facebook messages Sawyer allegedly sent to a friend explaining that he planned to shoot up the school, and a number of social media posts attributed to Sawyer but made under the pseudonym Klebold. The connection? Sawyer was supposed to be obsessed with the 1999 attack at Columbine; Dylan Klebold was one of the shooters.
The above evidence is all that seems to exist in the case. But let’s assume that everything the police and prosecutors say is true. There’s still one big problem. Fantasizing about committing a crime – even talking about and planning to commit a crime – isn’t quite the same as committing the crime. As Vermont’s Defender General, Matthew Valerio, said, “I can sit around all day with a list of the people I don’t like and talk about the ways I’d like to hurt them and what I’d do if I had the chance, but that’s not a crime that’s a fantasy.”
Sawyer is charged with four very serious felony charges – some of which can bring a life sentence – all of which require he actually attempt to attack or kill someone, which he very clearly didn’t. And that’s exactly what the Vermont Supreme Court decided Wednesday, April 11:
“Defendant Jack Sawyer appeals the trial court’s decision holding him without bail. Defendant is charged with four separate counts, each predicated on his alleged attempt to commit a crime, and three of which are punishable by life imprisonment. The sole question before this Court is whether the evidence of guilt is great that the defendant attempted to commit any of the four charged crimes given the definition of “attempt” under Vermont law. We hold that the weigh of the evidence is not great that defendant has committed any act or combination of acts that would satisfy Vermont’s definition of an attempt to commit any of the charged crimes. We reverse the trial court’s hold-without-bail order and remand for further proceedings.”
In section 12 of the ruling, an attempt is defined as requiring both the intent – which he sure seemed to have – and an act that, but for an interruption, would result in the completion of a crime. That required act, of course, never occurred – and that’s the big hole in the case against him. Regardless of his intentions or what might have happened had the police not intervened, there’s no evidence that Jack Sawyer is technically guilty of the charges brought against him.
Jack Sawyer’s case certainly raises some questions. Is the evidence against him actually true – did he really plan to shoot up his old school? Even if he had been “plotting” the shooting, if he had plans dating back over two years but still hadn’t acted, was it, indeed, a plan, or just a fantasy? Does it matter? Either way, it’s easy to see how the community felt threatened by the young man.
Now that he is to be released, how will Fair Haven react? Will his own life now be at risk? Will the police keep tabs on him and the school ramp up security?
Were Fair Haven police right to arrest him and hold him, or were Sawyer’s rights violated? According to the diary that the police allegedly found, March 14 was the big day. Even if Sawyer committed no crime up to that point, and the arrest, holding, and charging was a violation of his rights and a gross overstep by the local police, how many lives might have been lost March 14 had they not acted? If Sawyer beats these charges – which he very well could – what will he do afterward? Could the police have handled it differently? Perhaps if they waited and watched him longer, they would have been able to catch him in some act that would have qualified as an actual crime. Then again, maybe they would have missed their chance to save lives.
Finally, should Vermont institute laws regarding terroristic threats, or rewrite the laws already in place so that merely the intent can constitute an attempt? No true liberty minded individual ever wants to see either the rights to free speech or to keep and bear arms infringed, but it is hard to argue with lives saved. What is the answer to the Jack Sawyer riddle? At what point does intent become actionable?