ST. ALBANS — Alleged aggression on the part of the murder victim are likely to be part of the defense when accused murderer Matthew Webster goes to trial this summer.
Webster, 31, of Swanton, has been charged with second-degree murder in the Sept. 25, 2013 shooting death of Anna Alger of Highgate, 31.
A glimpse into the defense’s arguments came during a status conference in Franklin County Superior Court on Tuesday. Defense attorney Steve Dunham seeks to depose Alger’s grandmother, mother, daughter and best friend.
Dunham, however, had to offer the court evidence showing why he should be allowed to depose family members who were not present and did not witness the shooting.
He presented the court with pages from the deposition of Patrick Dalley, Alger’s fiancé, who was riding in the passenger seat of Alger’s car when Webster ran a red light at the intersection of Lower Newton and Main streets, nearly causing an accident between the two vehicles.
According to a police interview previously played in court, Webster told police that after the near collision he began looking for a place to pull over since he was in no condition to drive. He pulled off to the side of North Main Street. Alger pulled up behind him and got out of her car. Webster, too, stepped out of his car, but he had a gun in his hand with which he had been considering shooting himself.
In sections of Dalley’s deposition read to the court by Dunham, Dalley spoke of how angry Alger was at the near collision. He said he urged her not to stop, adding, “but that’s not the person she is.”
“If someone ticks her off, she’s going to tell you how she feels,” Dalley said in his deposition.
However, Dalley also said he had never previously seen her angry, but had heard from her family and best friend, Amanda Moore, about her temper.
Deputy state’s attorney John Lavoie responded to the defense’s evidence stating, “The deposition of these family members and Anna’s best friend would serve no purpose and would only serve to harass these people.”
The state also seeks a protective order to prevent what prosecutors characterize as harassment of potential witnesses
Alger did not have a weapon and was not the aggressor, said Lavoie, adding that any argument she provoked with Webster would not be born out by the evidence.
Lavoie cited another Vermont case, that of Kyle Bolaski, whose second-degree murder conviction was overturned by the Vermont Supreme Court on the issue of how the judge instructed the jury on what qualifies a crime as second degree murder. In Vermont, second-degree murder requires there be no provocation.
In that case, Bolaski was pursued by the victim, who was carrying a splitting maul. The victim also had a history of violent confrontations with other members of the community. Bolaski shot the victim twice, and the victim died of his wounds.
Alger was unarmed, noted Lavoie. “It can’t be, ‘She yelled at me so I shot her,'” he argued.
“The evidence is very clear that the deceased was the aggressor,” countered Dunham.
In his deposition, Dalley said Webster stood by his car while Alger approached him yelling, according to Dunham, According to another witness, Alger yelled, “Do you know what kind of piece of shit you are?” said Dunham.
Alger’s actions are relevant to four possible lines of defense, said Dunham. The first two relate to the formation of intent to kill and sudden provocation, both of which could lead to a conviction on a lesser charge of manslaughter.
“We’re not foreclosed from arguing self-defense at this point,” said Dunham, adding that Alger’s supposed aggression would also be relevant to an insanity defense.
Lavoie countered, “Provocation has to be adequate. Mere words are never enough to merit a physical response.”
As for Alger’s approach, “She never made it past the fender of her car and her car was riddled with bullets,” said Lavoie.
Provocation, argued Lavoie, is not supported by either the physical evidence or eyewitness testimony.
The Vermont Supreme Court has never defined provocation. In their Bolaski ruling, the judges relied upon definitions found in other jurisdictions. Michigan, according to the ruling, defines provocation as “an action that causes defendant to act out of passion rather than reason and would cause a reasonable person to lose control.”
Provocation is also defined in other jurisdictions as causing great or extreme emotions such as fear, rage or jealousy and “would cause a reasonable person to kill and would cause a reasonable person to lose control and act out of passion,” according to the Vermont Supreme Court.
Judge Alison Arms took the matter under advisement and said she will rule by the end of the week.
Among the other issues addressed at the hearing was the need to narrow a witness list that is currently in excess of 100 people. Arms set deadlines for the narrowing of the state’s witness list and the defense providing the names of the forensic and lab personnel they will need to depose.