By Elizabeth Gribkoff
Judge Kevin Griffin says he wants to see evidence of statewide media coverage before deciding whether to grant a change of venue for a Williston man who was charged with driving the wrong way on Interstate 89 and killing five teenagers in 2016.
The driver, Steven Bourgoin, 37, has pleaded not guilty to five counts of second-degree murder, each carrying a possible sentence of 20 years to life.
The state and Bourgoin’s attorney, Robert Katims, jointly filed an exhibit on May 21 showing online news coverage by Chittenden County media outlets of the accident and ongoing investigation. If the new filing, to be made by June 11, shows significant media coverage throughout Vermont, Griffin feels a change of venue might be “counterproductive,” according to an order entered following a hearing last Thursday.
Katims had requested in April that his client not be tried in Chittenden County Superior Court, arguing that his client would not receive a fair trial from jurors who lived in the county where the highly publicized crash occurred.
“Not only has publicity in this case been pervasive and severely negative with respect to Mr. Bourgoin, but any potential juror from Chittenden County is likely to have driven through the scene of the crime (a section of Interstate 89 in the Town of Williston) on numerous occasions,” wrote Katims. “The community in Chittenden was powerfully impacted by the events at issue in this case, and cannot be expected to judge Mr. Bourgoin fairly.”
The state objected to Bourgoin’s request to be tried outside Chittenden County, arguing that negative media coverage in itself does not merit a change of venue.
“That media coverage has to be so negative, so inflammatory and so prejudicial to (Bourgoin) that it would preclude him from receiving a fair trial with a Chittenden County jury,” wrote Deputy State’s Attorney Susan Hardin in her May 9 objection.
Hardin added that although the accident took place in Chittenden County, all five victims were from Washington County. The accident took place on a “major highway,” not on neighborhood streets, she pointed out.
Hardin asked that jury questionnaires be used to determine whether potential jurors are so prejudiced against Bourgoin as to preclude a fair trial.
“The fact that residents of Chittenden County may know about the defendant’s case through the media does not automatically mean that they cannot serve as fair and impartial jurors,” she wrote.
The teenagers were on their way home from a concert at Higher Ground in South Burlington when Bourgoin, heading northbound on I-89 South, crashed his Toyota Tacoma into them going an estimated 79 mph, officials said. The VW Jetta the students were in burst into flames in the highway median.
According to officials, Bourgoin then stole a squad car from Williston police who had arrived at the scene of the crash. He drove south toward Richmond and then headed back to the scene, colliding with several other stopped vehicles while going 107 mph.
The students killed in the crash were Mary Harris, 16, and Cyrus Zschau, 16, both of Moretown; Liam Hale, 16, of Fayston; Eli Brookens, 16, of Waterbury; and Janie Chase Cozzi, 15, of Fayston. Four of the five were students at Harwood Union High School. and Cozzi was a student at Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire.
Harwood Union High School dedicated a gazebo last fall to the teenagers. Residents across the Mad River Valley and in Waterbury placed five-pointed stars on their houses in tribute to the students.
Bourgoin’s attorneys plan to use an insanity defense for their client when the case goes to trial, according to a notice filed in March. They said he suffered from PTSD and had racked up medical debt. Bourgoin spent the morning before the crash going in and out of the emergency room for unknown medical reasons.
Bourgoin had 10 nanograms of active THC in his system eight hours following the crash, according to a toxicology report obtained from police. The report showed he also had taken fentanyl, an opioid pain medicine, and midazolam, a depressant — a combination that can be fatal.
Bourgoin remains in jail without bail. A trial date will be set once the change of venue issue is resolved.