Local News

High court rejects bid by ex-Rutland City attorney to overturn prison term

By Alan J. Keays/VTDigger

The Vermont Supreme Court has rejected a call to overturn the prison sentence for a former attorney for the city Rutland who argued that the judge who sent him behind bars for his role in fatal drunken crash had it out for him.

The ruling issued Friday, Oct. 19, by the state’s highest court is the latest legal setback for Christopher Sullivan, 58, in his bid to gain his freedom. He argued that Judge Theresa DiMauro abused her discretion by handing down the identical prison term after the original sentence was thrown out.

Attorneys for Sullivan contended that DiMauro in imposing the latest sentence used “near verbatim, word-for-word” language as she did the first time ordering jailed for four to 10 years in the April 2013 crash that killed Mary Jane Outslay, 71, of Mendon.

“[Sullivan] claims ‘the court’s repeated refusal to consider the individual characteristics and mitigating circumstances and inherently contradictory findings established its personal bias against [him,]’” the decision stated. “We reject this characterization of the record.”

The ruling, authored by Chief Justice Paul Reiber, added, “The court’s findings, while inconsistent with defendant’s interpretation of the evidence, were not inherently contradictory. And the court’s refusal to credit defendant’s expert testimony was within its discretion and not evidence of animus.”

DiMauro delivered stinging words to Sullivan at his second sentencing hearing in August 2017.

He stated that he panicked and was unsure what to do,” DiMauro said of Sullivan. “It is simply not credible that he was totally disoriented.”

DiMauro’s action on the bench had been a target of Sullivan’s attorneys throughout the case.

Prior to that second sentencing hearing in August 2017, Sullivan’s attorney tried to have DiMauro thrown off the case, arguing she had “prejudged” the matter based on comments she made at a hearing a couple months earlier.

At that hearing, the judge indicated the chances that Sullivan would get a sentence with no additional prison time were slim.

Eventually, another judge ruled that DiMauro could continue to preside, and that issues raised by Sullivan’s attorney could be argued on appeal.

Rebecca Turner, a public defender representing Sullivan, asked the state’s highest court to overturn the prison term her client received at that second sentencing hearing, and ordered a new, and third, sentencing hearing in the case, with a new judge presiding over it.

Prosecutor David Tartter argued that the judge simply did not buy the arguments presented by Sullivan’s attorney at the second sentencing hearing that any change was warranted.

“The fact that a sentencing judge’s criticism is ‘harsh,’ or constitutes a ‘stinging public admonition’ does not amount to an abuse of discretion,” Tartter added in a filing to the court.

“Such an admonition can serve ‘the important function of deterring like conduct,’ and can provide the ‘harsh awakening’ that a criminal defendant needs rehabilitation.”

Sullivan was convicted in 2015 of drunken driving and leaving the scene of a fatal crash that killed Outslay in downtown Rutland on the evening of April 10, 2013. Judge DiMauro then sentenced Sullivan to four to 10 years in prison.

However, he appealed. In April 2017 the Supreme Court upheld his convictions but overturned his sentence, and for a couple of months Sullivan was freed on bail awaiting his second sentencing hearing.

The high court ruled Sullivan should have been permitted more time to present “mitigating” testimony from an expert witness, to help explain his action in fleeing the scene.

According to court records, Sullivan fled the crash scene in his 2004 Lexus 330. He didn’t tell police until a day later that he was behind the wheel of the vehicle that struck and killed Outslay as she left a restaurant and was crossing a street, court records stated.

At that second sentencing hearing in August 2017, clinical psychologist Thomas Powell testified on Sullivan’s behalf. Powell said at that hearing that Sullivan suffered from a traumatic event on the night of the crash and his action of the leaving the scene “was reflexive, not the result of deliberation or self-preservation.”

DiMauro apparently wasn’t swayed, and imposed the same four to 10 year sentence for Sullivan.

The state’s highest court found no reason to overturn that decision this time around.

“The trial judge provided a detailed explanation for her sentencing decision, including that she found defendant and his witness not to be credible, and a reasoned basis for the sentence she imposed,” the high court’s decision read.

“The record shows the trial judge based her sentencing decision on proper factors, accurate information, and the legitimate goals of criminal justice,” the ruling added. “There was no abuse of discretion.”

Sullivan had served as either city attorney or deputy city attorney in Rutland for nearly two decades. He was in private practice at the time of the fatal crash.

His minimum release date is Aug. 5, 2019. He is currently serving his sentence at the Springfield prison.

Mountain Times Newsletter

Sign up below to receive the weekly newsletter, which also includes top trending stories and what all the locals are talking about!