State v. Willis

Decision Date22 March 1985
Docket NumberNo. 82-292,82-292
Citation145 Vt. 459,494 A.2d 108
PartiesSTATE of Vermont v. Wade WILLIS.
CourtVermont Supreme Court

John J. Easton, Jr., Atty. Gen., Elizabeth Grant Rome and Robert V. Simpson, Jr., Asst. Attys. Gen., Montpelier, and Philip H. White, Orleans County State's Atty., Newport, for plaintiff-appellee.

Nancy E. Kaufman, Montpelier, for defendant-appellant.

Before BILLINGS, C.J., HILL, UNDERWOOD and GIBSON, JJ., and DALEY, J. (Ret.), Specially Assigned.


Defendant appeals from a conviction of first degree murder after a jury trial in the Orleans County Superior Court. The defendant did not contest the fact that he committed the killing but claimed that, because of a mental defect, he was unable to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law. Thus, defendant advanced an insanity defense under the former 13 V.S.A. § 4801, now 13 V.S.A. § 4801(a). Defendant also defended on a claim of diminished mental capacity.

An overview of the facts pertinent to this appeal follows. On May 21, 1981, the defendant, then sixteen years old, was at the home of his cousin, Roy Bullis, in Morgan, Vermont. Defendant disclosed to Roy Bullis that defendant's girl friend, Terri Weed, was pregnant and that he, the defendant, was the father. Defendant then told Roy Bullis that he was going to kill Terri Weed so that no one would know that she was pregnant. Students at North Country Union High School, which defendant and Terri Weed both attended, already knew of Terri's pregnancy, however, and they also assumed that defendant was the father. This had led to much cruel teasing of defendant by other students at school. After telling Roy Bullis of his intention to kill Terri, defendant borrowed a pair of gloves from him and left to meet Terri Weed.

After leaving the Bullis residence, defendant and Terri were together in the woods behind her house. Defendant beat Terri in the head with a baseball bat until she was unconscious and then he left her for dead. Somewhat later, defendant called Roy Bullis to tell him that Terri was dead, and the two then arranged to meet near defendant's home. Eventually, defendant picked up a shovel and took Bullis to where Terri was lying in the woods. Realizing that she was still alive, defendant hit Terri with the shovel point in the head and stomach. Defendant then dragged her by the hair to another spot in the woods where he began to bury her. Thinking she was still alive, defendant hit her several more times with the shovel before he finished burying her. Defendant and Bullis then left the woods. Defendant later called Bullis and told him to tell anyone who asked about Terri's whereabouts that she had left with two guys in a red car.

Later that afternoon, the Vermont State Police received two anonymous phone calls but learned only that there had been a killing. A little while later, Joseph Bullis, Roy's father, called the state police and said that something terrible had happened in Morgan. A few minutes later, defendant's father, Duane Willis, called to request that the police hurry to his house because there had been a killing behind the Weed residence in Morgan. Corporals Rivard and Johnson left for the Willis residence.

Rivard and Johnson arrived and met Duane Willis in the kitchen of his house. Also present were Mr. and Mrs. Bullis. Mr. Willis appeared to be very upset. Corporal Johnson asked, "What's the problem here?" to which Mr. Willis replied, "My son tells me he killed some girl." He said that the girl was Terri Weed and that her body was in the woods behind Larry Weed's residence. Mr. Willis also told them that Wade was sixteen years old.

Corporal Rivard asked where Wade was, at which time the defendant came from the living room into the kitchen; he said nothing. The officers discussed the situation privately for a few moments, and a short while later, outside the house, Corporal Rivard asked Wade, "[Do] you want to show us where it is?" Defendant nodded his head affirmatively. The officers insisted that Mr. Willis accompany them because the defendant was a juvenile.

The defendant, his father and the two officers then proceeded into the woods behind the Weed residence with the defendant leading the way. The only conversation during the walk was an admonition by Corporal Johnson to stay away from the Weed residence. There was no questioning of the defendant, nor were any words spoken by him.

When the group reached the spot where Terri Weed lay partially buried, the officers checked the wrist for a pulse. They could discern no pulse and concluded that Terri Weed was dead. The officers then placed the defendant under arrest and read him the Miranda warnings. At this time, 4:41 p.m., the officers still did not question the defendant. Defendant was taken to the state police barracks shortly after 5:00 p.m. where he was once again advised of his Miranda rights, this time in the presence of his mother and father.

The defendant has briefed five issues on appeal. The facts necessary to determine defendant's claims of error will be supplemented as necessary under the individual sections of the opinion dealing with each claim.


The defendant first claims that the trial court abused its discretion by denying his motion to transfer these criminal proceedings to juvenile court pursuant to 33 V.S.A. § 635(b). 1 At the time the defendant sought the transfer, he was over sixteen years and under eighteen years of age, the age of majority. Recently, we observed that motions under 33 V.S.A. § 635(b) are discretionary and will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. State v. Jacobs, 144 Vt. 70, 74-75, 472 A.2d 1247, 1249-50 (1984). We have stated that "[i]t is a steadfast rule of this Court that '[a]ny discretionary ruling is not subject to revision here unless it clearly and affirmatively appears that such discretion has been abused or withheld.' " State v. Picknell, 142 Vt. 215, 230, 454 A.2d 711, 718 (1982) (citations omitted); see also State v. Savo, 141 Vt. 203, 208, 446 A.2d 786, 789 (1982).

Defendant argues that the trial court erred in denying his motion for transfer based upon its legal conclusion that the juvenile court's jurisdiction over the defendant would end when he became eighteen years old, by virtue of 33 V.S.A. § 634, 2 and in further concluding that the juvenile court could not assure adequate rehabilitation of the defendant in less than two years. Defendant argues that the 1981 amendment to 33 V.S.A. § 634, namely § 634(b), 3 would have applied to the defendant and given the juvenile court jurisdiction over him up to age twenty-one. The State disputes this; it argues that the amended § 634(b) would not apply to the defendant and that the trial court correctly concluded that the juvenile court's jurisdiction would terminate on defendant's eighteenth birthday. We agree with the defendant's contention that the trial court failed to exercise its discretion properly in ruling upon his motion to transfer. The trial court based its denial on an erroneous conclusion that, if it were to grant the motion to transfer, the juvenile court would be able to retain jurisdiction over the defendant only until the time of his eighteenth birthday.

At the time of the charged offense, the juvenile court could retain its jurisdiction over juveniles only until their eighteenth birthday. 33 V.S.A. § 634. Effective July 17, 1981, the juvenile court could extend its jurisdiction over juveniles until their twenty-first birthday. 33 V.S.A. § 634(b). Both statutory law and case law normally prohibit the retroactive application of new statutory law. Title 1 V.S.A. § 214(b) provides that "[t]he amendment ... of [a] ... statutory provision ... shall not: (2) [a]ffect any right ... acquired ... prior to the effective date of the amendment...." (Emphasis added.) The applicable law is that which is in effect at the time of the occurrence of the facts which give rise to the rights in question. State v. Matthews, 131 Vt. 521, 523, 310 A.2d 17, 19 (1973). "Thus, the essential inquiry is whether 'the act which triggers application of the amended statute occurs after the effective date of the amended statute.' " Carpenter v. Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles, 143 Vt. 329, 333, 465 A.2d 1379, 1382 (1983) (citations omitted).

Utilizing the above mode of analysis, the State contends that 33 V.S.A. § 634(b), which would allow the juvenile court to retain jurisdiction over the defendant until he reached the age of twenty-one, could not be applied under the facts of the present case. This contention, however, is based on the erroneous assumption that the defendant had a right, prior to the effective date of the statutory amendment, to be placed under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court for a period not to exceed his eighteenth birthday. In fact, the defendant had no right to remain under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court for any period of his life, unless and until the juvenile court obtained jurisdiction over the defendant pursuant to 33 V.S.A. § 635(b) (Supp.1981). Under the facts of the present case, any such transfer of jurisdiction of the case from superior court to juvenile court could not have occurred prior to the effective date of the amendment to 33 V.S.A. § 634. Therefore, the defendant had no rights to be affected by the amended 33 V.S.A. § 634(b), and the application of 33 V.S.A. § 634(a) would have been permissible notwithstanding the provisions of 1 V.S.A. § 214(b)(2). Thus the trial court erred in its conclusion that the juvenile court could have retained jurisdiction over the defendant only until his eighteenth birthday. The superior court decided, as a matter of law, that the juvenile court could not possibly retain jurisdiction over the defendant until he turned twenty-one. It thereby failed, in ruling on defendant's motion to transfer, to exercise any discretion concerning the juvenile court's...

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