BURLINGTON — Ten women and six men have been selected as jurors for the trial of a Williston man charged after a wrong-way crash that killed five Central Vermont teens in 2016 Interstate 89.
Opening statements and testimony about Steven D. Bourgoin, 38, will begin Monday in Vermont Superior Court in Burlington. The high-profile trial is expected to last up to three weeks.
Defense lawyer Robert Katims essentially acknowledged during jury selection Wednesday that Bourgoin was behind the wheel when his northbound Toyota Tacoma crashed into the southbound Volkswagen Jetta at about 11:55 p.m. Oct. 8, 2016.
Katims said the issues at trial will include whether there was a crime — and if so, what it was — and if Bourgoin was insane at the time of the fatal crash.
Psychiatrists retained by the prosecution and defense have said they believe he was insane at the time of the crash, but State’s Attorney Sarah George is hoping to show Bourgoin should be held responsible. George and Deputy State’s Attorney Susan Hardin may use Bourgoin’s former girlfriend, Anila Lawrence, and a third doctor to overcome the findings of the other two.
The crash took the lives of Eli Brookens, 16, of Waterbury; Janie Chase Cozzi, 15, of Fayston; Liam Hale, 16, of Fayston; Mary Harris, 16, of Moretown; and Cyrus Zschau, 16, of Moretown.
Bourgoin has pleaded not guilty to five counts of second-degree murder and misdemeanor charges of aggravated operation of a marked Williston police cruiser without consent and reckless driving of the vehicle by crashing it into the first accident scene.
Police say while Williston Officer Eric Shepard tried to assist the victims and use a fire extinguisher to smother the flames, Bourgoin jumped into the white-and-dark-blue marked cruiser and drove away. He later pulled a U-turn on I-89 and returned to the scene to smash into his truck and seven vehicles belonging to people who had stopped to offer help.
Authorities maintain that besides speeding and driving in the wrong direction, Bourgoin had high levels of THC and other drugs in his system.
The teens were returning home from a concert at Higher Ground in South Burlington. Four victims attended Harwood Union High School in Duxbury. Cozzi had transferred to Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire.
A state judge ordered a blood draw of Bourgoin because of the impairment he displayed at the scene, police said.
While the 16 jurors will hear the case, only 12 will actually decide Bourgoin’s fate. Once the testimony has been completed and closing arguments presented, alternates will be determined. Courts now tend to refrain from identifying alternates at the start of a trial in an effort to try to get the full panel to listen closely to all the testimony.
While most of Monday and Tuesday were both spent with individual questioning of potential jurors, it took only about an hour of general questioning Wednesday morning before the two sides agreed on the jury.
“This process went fairly smoothly,” Judge Kevin Griffin said.
He excused the 16 men and women shortly after 11 a.m. Wednesday, reminding them not to read any newspapers, watch TV news, stay off social media and to avoid conversations with family and friends about the trial. He warned them that he did not want to see the trial get derailed after all the time and effort invested.
Griffin did ask Bourgoin to sign a form indicating he had no objection to having a prompt trial and was willing to wait until Monday.
Proceedings on Wednesday were delayed while waiting for two potential jurors. Griffin in the end decided to proceed. The court is expected to summon the two people for their failure to appear.
During the general questioning, 24 potential jurors sat in the front of the courtroom responding to inquiries, while about 45 others sat in the gallery waiting to see if they would be called forward to replace any of the two dozen.
George focused on only a few issues. She asked if any jurors knew each other and if that would impact being able to reach agreement on a verdict. She also talked about some of her favorite television shows, Law and Order and CSI, and told jurors that those are not always accurate portrayals.
George also asked whether jurors — due to moral or spiritual reasons — would be unable to pass judgment on another person or find guilt.
Katims acknowledged the seriousness of the case and tried to focus on issues of bias and prejudice. He also asked if the grief, emotion and tragedy would be too much for jurors.
“This case is a tragedy,” he told the jury panel. “The families will be sitting right there.”
Katims also noted a criminal trial by its own nature will not be so much about the loss of five teens, but about the entire life of Bourgoin.
“Your life becomes an open book. It’s a lot about Mr. Bourgoin,” Katims explained when an insanity defense is used.
Katims, who is assisted by Sara Puls, said the trial will include information about where Bourgoin grew up and the different issues he faced.
He said for an insanity defense, the issues are whether Bourgoin had a mental disease or defect and could not conform to proper expected behavior.
Katims explained that while crimes need to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard for insanity was a “preponderance of the evidence” — did the balance scales tip in the defendant’s favor?
He said that would mean the standard is “more likely than not” or one side showed at least 51%.
Katims said the insanity issue would only be determined if the jury agreed that a crime had happened “beyond a reasonable doubt.” He also hinted the jury during deliberations might be able to find a lesser included offense, like manslaughter.
He also informed jurors they might hear testimony about domestic violence and asked if that might make anybody uncomfortable.
After the questioning, the judge called a recess to allow the lawyers to decide who they wanted bumped from the 24 potential jurors seated up front. When court reconvened, seven were booted by the lawyers. The lawyers do not have to give a reason for so-called peremptory challenges. Some other potential jurors were excused on Monday or Tuesday for specific causes.
“We have a jury,” Griffin said.
The announcement seemed to surprise many in the courtroom that might have been expecting a longer day. Some potential jurors sitting in the gallery with members of the media gave sighs of relief with the realization that they would not have to decide one of the biggest homicide trials in Vermont history.
The five deaths are believed to be the largest mass homicide case charged criminally in Vermont history.
The judge has rejected a request by the prosecution to display five large color photographs of the five teen victims during the opening statements.
There has been a large amount of media coverage since the crash. The defense had tried to get the trial moved out of Chittenden County because of the totality of the coverage, but Griffin ruled there had been significant coverage throughout the entire state. The judge said he was unable to find any faulty reporting by the media in the news reports submitted by the lawyers to the court.
Bourgoin, who played football and graduated from Rutland High School, saw his life spiraling out of control in the days and weeks leading up to the crash, police said.
Bourgoin was due to go on trial in November 2016 for a domestic assault charge. He had quit his job at Lake Champlain Chocolates warehouse in Williston the day before the crash, complaining about issues he was facing. Police found a foreclosure notice at his condominium at 103 Madison Drive and other financial difficulties including utilities being turned off, officials said.
He is now facing a second foreclosure attempt when a lawsuit was filed earlier this year, court records show.
Bourgoin also was in a custody dispute with his ex-girlfriend, Lawrence, over their 2½-year-old daughter, officials said. He had been placed on probation in Massachusetts for an earlier domestic assault case involving Lawrence, court records show.