BARRE – It wasn’t how he wanted it to turn out, but the Washington County Attorney says the office is in good shape as he prepares to hand over the role to his successor.
Rory Thibault’s term as the county’s chief prosecutor ends on January 31 after five years.
Rather than seek re-election, he took the opportunity to run for attorney general after TJ Donovan resigned in May to work for online gaming platform Roblox. Thibault’s campaign was ultimately unsuccessful, and voters chose Charity Clark, Donovan’s former chief of staff, for the role.
Bridget Grace, a then deputy for Thibault, had run to replace Thibault and had his approval. But she too was ultimately unsuccessful. Instead, Michelle Donnelly will take over after winning the Democratic primary in August and running unopposed in November’s election. Donnelly is a former assistant district attorney who worked under Tom Kelly and teaches at Vermont Law & Graduate School. She is also Senior Counsel at the school’s South Royalton Legal Clinic, where she directs the Family Law Project.
Thibault, who previously served as a JAG officer in the US Army overseas and currently serves as an officer in the Army Reserve, began his career as a prosecutor in Vermont as Scott Williams’ chief deputy in 2016. Williams was a prosecutor at the time. Thibault then left the office to join Donovan’s office in 2017.
He was appointed prosecutor by Gov. Phil Scott in February 2018 after Williams left office, and was elected to a four-year term later that year.
In an interview on Wednesday, Thibault divided his time here into three chapters. He said the first two years focused on rebuilding the office, hiring staff and changing policies and practices.
“Tackling the most pressing challenges out there that have, to some extent, been neglected or at least had a period of disruption,” he said.
Then the pandemic struck. Thibault said that over the next two years his office dealt with limited court time, a shift from business as usual and a lack of jury trials. He said he had to get creative to figure out how to balance public safety interests in certain cases with the reality that the state couldn’t just hold people in forever until the courts reopened.
He said his final year here was focused on ambition with his nationwide campaign and transition. Thibault said he knew when he decided to run for attorney general that he would not hold that role going forward.
“Although (the campaign) didn’t work, I think it reflects the evolution where, as I felt more comfortable in that role, I felt more inclined to voice my view of what works and what doesn’t work in the justice system works,” he said, adding that he has been invited several times in recent years to testify before the Legislature on court matters and proposed legislation.
While there is currently a statewide focus on the backlog of cases that the pandemic has contributed to, it’s not as big a problem in Washington County, and Thibault notes that the system is working well there. He said this district is fortunate to have “kept the trains running on time” compared to other districts. He attributed this in part to Judge Mary Morrissey, who presided over criminal cases here at the start of the pandemic.
Thibault said the judge has been proactive in managing cases. He said he also took a proactive approach, reaching out to the Correctional Authority to find out who was incarcerated and what cases could be resolved quickly to get people back into the community.
He said that county topped the list for the number of jury trials held in Vermont since trials were allowed to resume.
“We were ready to go. We have used our time during the pandemic not to sit back and be passive, but to be as active as possible. Settling deposits, completing investigations, making pre-trial motions. All those things that don’t need a jury. So we’re in decent shape,” he said.
In the fall, Thibault said he was asked by State Department prosecutors and sheriffs to review all open cases across the state using data provided by the judiciary. After completing that analysis, he said he found that Washington County had approximately 1,100 outstanding and active criminal cases. He said his office will file between 1,300 and 1,500 criminal charges in a year, leaving them with less than a “year’s supply” of cases in the pipeline.
Thibault said he also found that the average age of open cases here is about nine months, while the range observed in other counties for the average age of cases has been from 6½ months on the low end to 18 months on the high end since the indictment was originally filed had been . He said it shows this county has a healthy age for its open cases.
Thibault has spent the last few months getting as many cases off as he said he wants Donnelly to inherit a caseload that’s in the best possible shape. Thibault offered to hire Donnelly as a deputy before he left to ease the transition and he said she started coming to the office on January 17.
He said the “changing of the guard” revived discussion between his office and defense attorneys to resolve cases.
Thibault said last week he took the additional step of dismissing around 45 misdemeanor cases and another 45 cases involving the civil suspension of a person’s driver’s license. He said these cases were either dismissed because of their age or there was an argument to be made in the interests of justice. He said it is continuing the work he started last summer in reducing the number of active warrants in the county from about 350 to about 200 warrants. He said arrest warrants related to a serious crime had not been touched upon, but the prosecutor gave the example of a person charged with speeding who lives in another state and how unlikely it would be to extradite that person here to work on to answer this charge.
As for what’s not working, he said Central Vermont Medical Center and Washington County Mental Health Services are both understaffed and underappreciated for what they do as first responders for people in mental health crises. He said the need for mental health services has only increased since the pandemic and service providers are struggling to keep up.
He said law enforcement agencies across the county were dealing with varying staffing levels within departments. He noted that Montpelier has just seen former police chief Brian Peete resign to take a job in Kansas so that department is getting back into shape, and Barre City has seen some retirements and departures. Thibault said the Vermont State Police Department does not have as many staffing levels as it did when he first started working here.
He said that doesn’t mean those departments are underperforming, but that those that remain have to work harder to get the job done and they’re taking a less proactive role.
He said when it comes to the health of police departments, the factors that matter are pay, benefits and culture. He noted that Berlin, once known as a department with high turnover and difficulty retaining officers, is now fully staffed under the leadership of Chief James Pontbriand. He said Pontbriand, a former detective in Barre City, brought a positive culture and vibe to the department.
One way Thibault can address culture within law enforcement is by issuing a Brady or Giglio letter, named after national court cases. These letters inform defense attorneys of potential credibility concerns about a particular officer accused of wrongdoing, whether lying in an affidavit or being biased at work. Thibault said he believes his office is still the only one in the state with a formal policy on how such letters should be issued.
He asked the attorney general’s office to create its own statewide policy on these letters, which other prosecutors would have to follow. He said that office is the only one capable of prosecuting state cases throughout Vermont.
Thibault said he can see from the campaign that criminal justice is not one of Clark’s areas of focus, but he hopes the issue will soon gain attention and the office can provide some leadership on the matter.
Over the last five years, Thibault has dealt with several cases where someone is accused of committing serious crimes, is found disqualified from standing trial and then he has to figure out what to do with the case, because he was told the state Department of Mental Health does not view the defendant as someone in need of hospitalization or treatment. Thibault has tried to find out how the department makes such a decision because it has not made the process transparent. The department has pushed back on those efforts, saying the information Thibualt is looking for is private medical information that is protected.
He said the debate in the state right now revolves around whether there should be some sort of legal basis or mechanism to try to restore competence to someone. Thibault has lobbied for a forensic unit as part of the state psychiatric hospital to house those accused of serious crimes and a clear danger to the public but who were later found unfit to stand trial.
As for what’s next for Thibault, he said he’s not sure yet. Thibault said he wants to continue serving the public but has no keen interest in becoming a defender. He said he’s been pursuing a few opportunities and waiting to hear from others, but for now he said he has a wall that needs painting at his home in Cabot. He said he wants to take at least a week to recover from the work he’s done on the campaign over the past year and kept the office running.