BRATTLEBORO — The Vermont Supreme Court has denied the appeal of a woman who was convicted of killing a father and son in Townshend on Nov. 18, 2014.
"Robin O'Neill appeals from a jury conviction for aggravated murder of her ex-fianc and his son," wrote Associate Justice Beth Robinson. "She argues that the evidence was insufficient to support the conviction; that her statements to police should have been suppressed because they were the product of custodial interrogation without an attorney after she invoked her right to one; and that those statements should have been suppressed because the police coerced her into making them, depriving her of due process."
Writing for the Supreme Court, Robinson did not agree. "We hold that the evidence sufficiently and fairly supports the conviction; and that the statements defendant seeks to suppress were not made in response to police interrogation, and were not the product of police coercion, and thus were properly admitted."
O'Neill, now 69, was convicted by a jury of aggravated murder on June 28, 2017, for the deaths of Steven Lott and his son, Jamis. She was sentenced to life without parole.
According to court documents, O'Neill began a relationship with Steven Lott in early 2014 and they were engaged in July, after which she moved into Lott's home. But the relationship quickly soured after Lott began spending a lot of a time at a female neighbor's house in September. At the time, both O'Neill and Lott were listers for the town.
"Throughout that fall, defendant and Steven argued about their relationship and about Steven's relationship with neighbor," noted Robinson. "That October, [O'Neill] threatened and physically hurt Steven, and when Steven would visit neighbor, defendant would at times follow him." O'Neill also accused Steven Lott of hitting her. When friends told O'Neill to report the alleged assault, she responded that she wasn't "going to do that, because it was never going to happen again."
On Nov. 16, Lott told O'Neill to move out of the house and on the night of Nov. 18, O'Neill called a friend and said "I just shot Steve and Jamis. ... I did it, I really did it. I just shot Steve and Jamis dead. ... Steve's by my feet in a pool of blood and Jamis is under the table in his own pool of blood."
A short while later, O'Neill received a phone call from her sister and said, "I shot them, I think they're dead, there's blood, there's so much blood. And I don't know how I managed."
While she was on the phone with her sister, troopers with the Vermont State Police arrived on scene.
According to testimony presented at trial, at just before 10 p.m. that night, O'Neill had a blood-alcohol of 0.233. In the appeal, the Vermont Defender General's Office argued that the evidence was insufficient to support her conviction and that "her extreme intoxication at the time was inconsistent with the shooter's accurate aim, evidenced by the fact that all fifteen of the shots fired hit Steven and Jamis."
The Defender General also argued that the fact that she had no blood on her or the clothes she was wearing that day was inconsistent with the bloody crime scene and that there were important gaps in the State's evidence, "including that the State should have attempted to determine the identity of the third person whose DNA was found on the nine-millimeter gun ..." which might have led to other people who were near the murder scene that night.
"She argues that the State has offered no evidence that she had any motive to kill Jamis, and its argument that she killed Steven out of jealousy and frustration with their relationship relies on reductive stereotypes about women," wrote Robinson. "The crux of the State's case, she argues, is the happenstance that she was home at the time of the murders — but even this is insufficient to show she was the killer, when the house was unlocked and people frequently came and went from it."
Robinson wrote that there was no evidence that anyone else was in the home at the time of the murders and that O'Neill's DNA was found on the nine-millimeter gun that was used to kill Lott and his son. Robinson also noted that while no blood was found on defendant, no blood was found on the murder weapon, either.
"And although she was drunk, it is not improbable that defendant was able to fire all fifteen shots into Steven and Jamis, given that they were shot from no more than a few feet away," noted Robinson. "In sum, defendant's repeated confessions, her opportunity and motive, and the forensic evidence tying her to the murder weapon were sufficient for a jury to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that she killed Steven and Jamis."
The Supreme Court also disagreed with the Defender General's contention that O'Neill's statements should not have been allowed into evidence during the trial.
"She argues that she invoked her right to counsel soon after police took her into custody, and that the police's subsequent questions and comments qualified as interrogation because the police knew or should have known their conduct was reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response from her," wrote Robinson, who noted some of O'Neill's statements weren't allowed into evidence because they violated her constitutional rights. "After a hearing, the [trial] court held that, while her statements in the cruiser and while alone in the processing room were made voluntarily and not in response to any conduct or questioning by the police, later statements she made in response to questioning (which are not at issue in this appeal) were in response to custodial interrogation, and this questioning violated her rights ... Accordingly, the court held the statements in the cruiser and processing room were admissible, but suppressed the later statements made during formal questioning."
The Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's decision on which statements were allowable.
"There is no indication that the police did anything that was reasonably likely to elicit defendant's statements," wrote Robinson. "Before defendant made her first apparent confession ... the officers had just asked her routine questions, including asking if she was ok and if there was anyone else in the house; given her routine instructions, such as to put her hands behind her back to be handcuffed; and told her they would not shoot her when she suggested they should. ... These brief and routine interactions, and the reassurance that the police would not shoot her, were not reasonably likely to elicit incriminating statements."
The Supreme Court also affirmed the trial court's conclusion that O'Neill's statements were made voluntarily, even if she was extremely intoxicated at the time and may have been in shock following the murders. "Her vulnerability, while relevant to the totality analysis, did not itself render her statements involuntary," wrote Robinson. "We recognize that given her highly intoxicated and emotional state, we must be particularly attuned to the possibility that defendant's ... statements were the product of subtle coercion. ... [D]efendant was emotionally unstable; she was in custody for hours; and she had requested counsel but was not able to speak to an attorney."
However, wrote Robinson, "[W]e do not find that two and a half hours of detention, during which officers gave defendant water and tissues and allowed her to use the restroom, were coercive. Given that this was a double homicide case in which, as the State argues, officers needed time to familiarize themselves with the facts before questioning defendant, the delay here was not so excessive as to render defendant's statements involuntary. Thus, as in Smith, we conclude that police did not coerce defendant into speaking, and do not suppress her statements as involuntary."
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or firstname.lastname@example.org.