Attorneys ask for delay in Townshend woman's murder trial

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BRATTLEBORO — The trial for a Townshend woman accused of killing two men in November 2014 has been delayed again.

New attorneys for Robin O'Neill, 63, are asking Windham Superior Court Judge Katherine Hayes to give them more time to depose experts and witnesses before going to trial. O'Neill has pleaded not guilty to two second-degree murder charges in connection with the deaths of Steven Lott, 60, and his son Jamis Lott, 28.

On the day O'Neill allegedly shot the two men to death, Steven Lott had broken off their four-month engagement and told her to move out of his house. That day, Jamis Lott had stopped in to wash his laundry. The elder Lott was shot 12 times in his pelvis, abdomen, thighs, scrotum, chest, neck, head and face. His son was found dead under the dining room table with gunshot wounds to the head.

The Vermont State Police responded to 110 Abbey Road in Townshend on Nov. 18 after receiving a phone call at 9 p.m. that someone had "just shot and killed her boyfriend and his son" at the residence.

O'Neill's new attorneys, Ian Carleton and Kevin Lumpkin, of Sheehey, Furlong and Behm in Burlington, have asked Hayes to reopen the discovery process to allow them to ask more questions of people who have already been deposed. The attorneys want the opportunity to dig deeper into the training, experience, qualifications and conduct of the investigators who handled the case and determine whether proper procedures were followed. They also want to ask investigators and witnesses their opinions of various aspects of the case, including what they thought of the scene and what they thought of O'Neill's demeanor that night.

O'Neill's previous attorney, Chris Montgomery, had further complicated the process when he told the court that his client no longer wanted to claim a diminished capacity defense based on her state of intoxication at the time the two men were killed. Montgomery told the court that his client maintained she didn't commit the crimes so therefore she doesn't need to use intoxication as an excuse.

Prior to being represented by Montgomery, O'Neill's first attorney was Mimi Brill, the supervising attorney for the Windham County division of the Office of the Public Defender.

In their request to reopen discovery, Carleton and Lumpkin note that the depositions provided to new counsel contain "substantive oversights, which include lightly or completely unexplored topics critical" to the defense. "(T)opics such as whether the original criminal investigation pursued all leads with equal and unbiased vigor, whether the investigation reflected best practices, whether evidence was properly obtained and preserved, and whether law enforcement inquired into alternate perpetrators and witnesses' motivations to lie."

They also noted that "O'Neill has expressed frustration in the past as to the quality of communication between her and her prior counsel."

Carleton and Lumpkin are asking Judge Hayes to allow them to re-interview eight investigators "without limitation," which they said makes sense because "inquiries may lead to other unanticipated areas of inquiry."

Carleton and Lumpkin noted that the time the investigators spent under oath was "astonishingly short," from between 13 and 30 minutes. The depositions "were not sufficiently thorough" and did not give O'Neill "an adequate opportunity to establish her innocence, or to hold the State to its burden of proof," they wrote.

Carleton and Lumpkin also want to interview witnesses who were deposed by the state and the two previous attorneys, because "each of these witnesses will play a critical role in establishing the dynamics of the relationship between Ms. O'Neill and the Lotts ..."

In addition, the two attorneys are seeking to interview a number of "expert" witnesses named by the state, especially experts the state says it has interviewed but for whom the defense has not received deposition summaries. "(E)xpert discovery ... has effectively never taken place on either side of this case until now. ... Ms. O'Neill's defense will be severely, if not catastrophically, undermined if she is deprived the opportunity to depose the State's experts and disclose her own response."

In its opposition to the motion to extend reopen discovery, the Windham County State's Attorney's Office claims the defendant's arguments "fail" and "are weak." The request by Carleton and Lumpkin show a disregard for the schedules of prosecutors, investigators and witnesses and "highlights counsel's unfamiliarity with state criminal prosecutions and a crowded Windham docket."

By August of 2015 when Montgomery was the defense attorney, wrote State's Attorney Tracy Shriver and Deputy State's Attorney Steven Brown, the state turned over 1,000 pages of discovery materials and the names of 185 witnesses, including experts.

"Defendant insinuates throughout her motion that veteran attorneys Brill, Montgomery, and (Robert) Katims (who had the case for four days prior to Montgomery taking over) failed to provide her with a constitutionally adequate defense, and, while disparaging and condemning of the work of her previous counsel, Defendant attempts to divest this argument of its offensiveness by stating that 'motion is not intended to cast aspersions of defense counsel,'" wrote Shriver and Brown. "Good cause is not established when the Defendant hires a new lawyer with an obviously different approach from the approach of the veteran lawyers previously appointed to the case. ... Defendant bolsters her request with continued aspersions cast onto previous counsel's performance claiming 'no effort was made' or 'no attempt was made' in critical evaluations of the prior depositions."

Shriver and Brown also wrote that "it defies reason — and the rules of evidence" to ask investigators or witnesses to share their personal opinions or their impressions of the case.

In their response to the state's response, Carleton and Lumpkin said the state's attempt to characterize their motion to reopen discovery as "a personal attack ... on the quality of work by prior counsel ... is inaccurate, but more importantly it is irrelevant." The state's objection to the motion, they wrote, has one unifying theme, and it is "that criminal defendants should simply accept police reports at face value, and concede that other documents produced by the government are complete, accurate and contain all the information necessary ..." Carleton and Lumpkin wrote that they would like the opportunity to "challenge and probe the materials produced by the government ..."

And, they noted, they would like to ask investigators about their impressions and opinions because "Every opinion or impression a law enforcement officer forms during the course of an investigation informs the next steps he or she takes. While the State may not appreciate the significance of investigative opinions and impressions ... the defense does."

The defense is also asking Judge Hayes that any additional discovery, if approved by the court, be sealed from public view because "The details contained in the motion and the exhibits have great potential prejudice (to) the defense if they are open to the public, and could seriously jeopardize Ms. O'Neill's Constitutional right to a fair trial." Any additional depositions might contain "voluminous and significant evidence that ordinarily would not be public information before trial," they noted.

Carleton and Lumpkin also wrote that O'Neill's case has already received "significant media coverage and is likely to receive more" and the right of the public to know what is being discussed prior to trial is "outweighed by the potential for prejudice" against O'Neill. "(M)edia coverage ... would have tremendous potential to taint the jury to the point of jeopardizing defendant's right to a fair trial."

The state is opposed to the motion to seal because the defense's argument has not overcome "the deep-rooted and strong presumption in favor of public access ..."

According to documents filed with the court, the Townshend town clerk had taken digital photographs of numerous bruises O'Neill had on her body prior to the shooting. She told the town clerk that Steven Lott had caused the bruises. Both O'Neill and Steven Lott were employed by the town of Townshend as listers. She is being held without bail at the woman's prison in Burlington.

O'Neill told the town clerk that Steven Lott had punched her repeatedly.

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 160.


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