State v. Hunt

Decision Date21 October 1988
Docket NumberNo. 85-235,85-235
CourtVermont Supreme Court
PartiesSTATE of Vermont v. Gordon HUNT.

Jane Woodruff, Washington County Deputy State's Atty., Barre, and Maxine Grad, Law Clerk (On the Brief), Montpelier, for plaintiff-appellee.

Walter M. Morris, Jr., Defender General, and William A. Nelson, Appellate Defender, Montpelier, for defendant-appellant.

Before PECK, J., BARNEY, C.J. (Ret.), COSTELLO, District Judge (Ret.), and VALENTE and JENKINS, Superior Judges, Specially Assigned.

PECK, Justice.

Defendant Gordon Hunt was charged with first degree murder in Barre City on April 19, 1982. He was subsequently convicted of the charge following a jury trial in Lamoille Superior Court. He appeals his conviction to this Court. We affirm.

In the late afternoon of the day of the murder, Peter Sophos was found shot to death in his first-floor apartment in Barre. The police were called at approximately 4:30 p.m., and various policemen, investigators and personnel from the state's attorney's office began interviewing people at the scene in order to identify them and determine what happened.

The defendant, who was 19 years old, lived with his father in a second floor apartment, directly above the victim. From an initial conversation with the police it became apparent that he had been home during the period in which the police believed Sophos had been killed, but he denied hearing or seeing anything unusual.

Around 5:30 p.m. a police officer began to investigate the second-floor hallway for evidence. He noticed a broken padlock casing on the attic door. Believing that the lock might have been broken that day in connection with the murder, the officer climbed the stairs to inspect the third-floor area. The attic was dimly lit so he went back downstairs to obtain a flashlight.

During this initial search of the attic defendant followed the police officer and informed him that the attic was "private property," and he "shouldn't go up there." When the officer returned with the flashlight, and a second police officer to help search the attic, defendant again attempted to accompany them; however, the officers told him firmly to remain downstairs.

At about 6:00 p.m. the officers discovered a rifle behind a cabinet in a space large enough to hide a person. They did not touch the rifle, but one of them stayed with it while the other went downstairs to summon the crime lab team. The latter then obtained the landlord's written permission to search the attic.

Meanwhile, defendant returned to his apartment. He put on his jacket and opened the window in order to jump to a roof five feet below and flee. Before he could accomplish this, however, a police officer knocked on his door, and seeing him in his jacket, with the window open, asked where he was going. Defendant responded that he was going to the store, and the officer asked if he would "stick around" for a little while. He agreed to do so.

Ten minutes later, three officers knocked on defendant's door and asked if he would mind going down to the station so he could be asked some "routine questions." He agreed to go. At this point, defendant was one of two suspects. Although the police intended to obtain statements from a number of people they had spoken to at the apartment building, defendant was the first person asked to go to the station because of "his unnatural curiousity at the crime scene ... [and] his presence in the building at the time of the murder."

At the station, defendant was taken into an office and read his Miranda rights, which he waived. Before waiving his rights, he asked if he was under arrest, and was told he was not. He was then questioned a short time about his knowledge of the victim and the murder, and asked to give a fingerprint sample; he did so. One of the three officers then asked how he could have been in his apartment at the time of the murder, not sleeping or watching television, and not have heard a gunshot. Defendant requested to be left alone with this officer and, before the officer said a word, he confessed to the killing.

After the initial confession, defendant gave taped statements to the police: a more detailed and lengthy explanation of what had occurred, that he had voluntarily accompanied the officers to the police station with the understanding that he was free to leave, and that he was freely making the statements. After the initial confession, he requested to see his father, and was told he could do so at a later time.

During the taped interview, defendant provided the officers with other evidence, including the spent cartridge case which he had thrown out at the station. He also took a breath test which showed that he had no alcohol in his blood, and he submitted to a polygraph test. Finally, he dictated a second statement to the police officers, which was signed by him and notarized.

On April 20, 1982, the Washington County State's Attorney filed an information in Washington Superior Court which charged defendant with the first degree murder of Peter Sophos. At the request of defendant, venue was changed from Washington County to Chittenden County, and the Chittenden Superior Court rejected a plea agreement reached between the defendant and the State which would have resulted in a minimum sentence of ten years to serve. Subsequently, venue was moved, over defendant's objection, to the Lamoille Superior Court by order of this Court, where he was found guilty of first degree murder after a trial by jury. The trial court subsequently imposed a sentence of thirty years to life. This appeal followed.

Defendant makes the following claims of error on appeal:

I. The Vermont Supreme Court acted without jurisdiction, and in violation of defendant's due process rights, when it ordered the venue of the case changed;

II. The Chittenden County assistant judges acted improperly when they rejected the plea agreement;

III. The Lamoille County assistant judges should have been disqualified from participation in the case;

IV. Defendant's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights under the United States Constitution, and Article Eleven rights under the Vermont Constitution, were violated by a warrantless search and seizure done without probable cause or exigent circumstances;

V. Defendant's confession was improperly admitted into evidence;

VI. The State improperly impeached defendant with evidence that defendant failed to make exculpatory claims at the time of his confession;

VII. The trial court allowed impermissible character evidence.


A complicated string of events led to defendant's first claim of error. When the original plea agreement was rejected by the Chittenden Superior Court, defendant challenged the power of the assistant judges to participate in deciding to accept or reject pleas, in an interlocutory appeal. See State v. Hunt, 145 Vt. 34, 485 A.2d 109, cert. denied, 469 U.S. 844, 105 S.Ct. 153, 83 L.Ed.2d 90 (1984). One of the assistant judges who participated in the Chittenden Superior Court proceedings, in her capacity as president of the Assistant Judge's Association (AJA), allegedly took improper action in an attempt to influence the outcome of the interlocutory appeal. After defendant's appeal was decided, he moved to have the assistant judges who participated in the prior proceedings disqualified. The presiding judge agreed to disqualify the assistant judge who had allegedly taken the action with respect to the appeal. This assistant judge filed a petition for extraordinary relief in this Court challenging the superior court's order disqualifying her. This Court rendered the issue moot by transferring venue to the Lamoille Superior Court. Defendant objected to the transfer by filing a motion to return venue to Chittenden County; the motion was denied.

Defendant argues that the Lamoille Superior Court was without jurisdiction to hear the case because the Supreme Court lacked authority to order a change of venue to the Lamoille court. The question is a novel one. It requires us to determine whether the supervisory authority of the Supreme Court encompasses directing a change of venue to prevent a failure of justice. There is, of course, clear statutory authority in the judicial branch to accomplish a change of venue. V.R.Cr.P. 21; 13 V.S.A. § 4631. Ordinarily, the exercise of that power rests with the superior court as expressly provided by law. See State v. Truman, 124 Vt. 285, 289, 204 A.2d 93, 96 (1964). Nevertheless, it is a responsibility of the court system to provide a fair and impartial tribunal for the conduct of a criminal trial. Neither the State nor defendant has a right--once, on defendant's motion, the preferred place of trial is abandoned--to insist on another particular situs. V.R.Cr.P. 21, Reporter's Notes. Moreover, neither defense nor State has right to hold on to an unfair or biased tribunal in order to take advantage of it as to choice of results, and neither has the right to insist that the trial be held before a court so comprised that the trial will be burdened by possible claims of defective composition or performance above and beyond the ordinary challenges which might arise in such proceedings. To leave that situation in place is to give one side or the other an automatic and undeserved veto over the outcome to the detriment of either the defendant or the people of the State of Vermont.

Such a situation is both extraordinary and unusual, but was true in this case. Under these circumstances, the inherent power and constitutional command to provide a judicial environment free from the taint of allegations of impropriety is so basic a responsibility of the judiciary that, rather than have the proceedings go forward under circumstances already compromised, the authority of the Supreme Court had to be, and properly was, exercised to bring the case back into a trial alignment consistent with the responsibilities of the judiciary to provide a fair, unbiased...

To continue reading

Request your trial
40 cases
  • State v. Whitaker
    • United States
    • Connecticut Supreme Court
    • July 24, 1990
    ...R., supra, 207 Conn. 725, 543 A.2d 719. Other courts considering similar cases have reached the same conclusion. See State v. Hunt, 150 Vt. 483, 555 A.2d 369 (1988) (nineteen year old's request to call his father was not an invocation of fifth amendment rights); see also State v. Crowhurst,......
  • State v. Ladue
    • United States
    • Vermont Supreme Court
    • April 7, 2017
    ...was wholly inconsistent with statements defendant made after being given his Miranda rights on the night of his arrest. As we stated in State v. Hunt, "[o]nce a defendant decides to speak, [the defendant's] failure to speak in exculpation cannot be explained away as a response to Miranda wa......
  • State v. Betts, 11–371.
    • United States
    • Vermont Supreme Court
    • August 2, 2013
    ...his confession to possessing the drugs flowed directly from the discovery of that illegally obtained evidence. Cf. State v. Hunt, 150 Vt. 483, 555 A.2d 369 (1988) (evidence did not show that but for illegal search and seizure defendant would not have confessed to murder and therefore confes......
  • Martin v. State
    • United States
    • Arkansas Supreme Court
    • May 5, 1997
    ...occasion to apply the dictates of Mendenhall to facts analogous to those presented by the instant case. For example, in State v. Hunt, 150 Vt. 483, 555 A.2d 369 (1988), the Supreme Court of Vermont rendered a decision that is particularly apposite to this case. In Hunt, police officers were......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT