Former prosecution expert tells jury Bourgoin was insane at time of fatal crash
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Former prosecution expert tells jury Bourgoin was insane at time of fatal crash

Dr. Reena Kapoor, a forensic psychiatrist, testifies that she believes Steven Bourgoin was insane at the time of a crash that killed five teenagers on I-89 in Williston in 2016 during his murder trial in Vermont Superior Court in Burlington on Wednesday. Kapoor was initially retained by the prosecution to assess Bourgoin’s mental state but was testifying for the defense. Pool photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

BURLINGTON – A forensic psychiatrist initially hired by the prosecution in the murder trial of Steven Bourgoin said she was initially skeptical about his claim of insanity at the time of a wrong-way crash that killed five teenagers.

But, she said, after interviewing him and reviewing other materials, she came to agree with his claim — though it was close call.

“I, like most people, thought this was a little bit ridiculous,” Dr. Reena Kapoor of the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, testified Wednesday of her first reaction that an insanity defense was being contemplated.

However, after meeting with him three times for a total of more than 12 hours, as well as looking over a “mountain” of paperwork, including medical and police records in addition to witness statements, Kapoor said she had a different take.

“In my opinion,” Kapoor said on the witness stand, “he did have a mental disease at that time, and that because of that mental disease, he was both unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct and to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law.”

“Is this a difficult case for you?” Robert Katims, Bourgoin’s attorney, asked,

“It was,” Kapoor replied.

“Why?” the defense lawyer asked.

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“In part, because the facts are absolutely tragic, there was a tremendous loss of lives,” she responded.

In addition, Kapoor said, there was a “credible alternate theory” of what happened.

“Which is,” she said, “that he was under stress, depressed, suicidal, decided to crash his car in a sort of suicide, homicide attempt and then when he didn’t die had to make up a story to get himself out of trouble.”

Kapoor testified Wednesday on the eighth day of the Bourgoin murder trial, and the fourth day of the defense case as they try to convince the jury that he was “legally insane” at the time of the 2016 fatal crash.

The defense, following Kapoor’s testimony, rested its case, though Katims said he may call another witness, a cellphone mapping expert, to the stand Thursday. Closing arguments aren’t expected to take place until Monday, at the earliest.

Steven BOURGOIN

Steven Bourgoin greets his defense attorney Robert Katims at the start of the eighth day of his  trial on Wednesday. Bourgoin is facing five counts of second-degree murder for a crash that killed five teenagers on I-89 in Williston in 2016. Pool photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Bourgoin, who has sat quietly throughout the trial appearing to pay close attention to the testimony, did not take the stand as part of the defense case.

Prosecutors say late on the night of Oct. 8, 2016, Bourgoin, behind the wheel of his 2012 Toyota pickup truck, drove north in the southbound lanes of Interstate 89 in Williston, crashing into an oncoming 2004 Volkswagen Jetta with five central Vermont teens inside.

Killed in the crash were Eli Brookens, 16, of Waterbury; Janie Chase Cozzi, 15, of Fayston; Liam Hale, 16, of Fayston; and Mary Harris and Cyrus Zschau, both 16, and both from Moretown.

Following that crash, Bourgoin drove away from the scene in the cruiser of a Williston police officer, who left the vehicle after rushing to the aid of the teens in the Jetta that had careened into the median of the interstate and was on fire.

Prosecutors have contended Bourgoin’s actions leading to the crash were intentional, out of rage or a suicide attempt, upset because of financial struggles and a child custody dispute with his ex-girlfriend.

Bourgoin faces five counts of second-degree murder in the death of the five teens, as well as other charges.

Real or fake

Kapoor, in her testimony Wednesday, said in Bourgoin’s case she had to decide between a “real psychosis” and a “fake psychosis,” and there was evidence on both sides of the debate.

“Ultimately,” she said, “I thought there was enough collateral data that supported his version of events that was consistent with psychosis, that I concluded that he was psychotic at the time.”

She talked of making a document, and working to line up details from Bourgoin’s recounting of events to other evidence in the case to help corroborate his version of events. She said while everything didn’t match up perfectly, enough did, leading to her ultimate conclusion.

Kapoor had initially been a prosecution expert, but they dropped her after she determined that Bourgoin was insane at the time of the crash.

Earlier this week, Dr. David Rosmarin, forensic psychiatrist at the McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, testified that he also examined Bourgoin and determined that he was insane at the time of the crash, though with a different diagnosis then Kapoor.

Rosmarin, hired by the defense, said Bourgoin was “grossly psychotic” and suffering from a bipolar disorder.

Kapoor diagnosed Bourgoin with a personality disorder, with traits of borderline personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder.

She said a person with such a condition have “vulnerability,” or “predisposition,” to becoming psychotic under stress.

“He was under a tremendous amount of stresses related to financial problems and his custody arrangement with his daughter,” Kapoor said of Bourgoin, “and then stressors then triggered a psychotic episode, including paranoid ideations, around the time of the crime.”

She talked of Bourgoin telling her that he thought the government had tapped him for a top-secret mission, communicating with him through devices, including his computer and cellphone, and his vehicle’s radio.

Later, he began to wonder if his life was in danger if he didn’t actually participate in the mission and that the government might harm him and others, including his daughter.

Kapoor recounted records of Bourgoin’s online searches in the days leading up to the crash, looking up such people and topics as the Department of Justice, the FBI, and Julian Assange of Wikileaks.

The doctor said when examining Bourgoin he didn’t talk of continuing to have psychotic episodes, as she would expect someone feigning would do. Instead, she said, he spoke of still trying to figure what happened and his confusion surrounding it.

“He wasn’t sort of playing crazy in any way,” Kapoor said.

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Steven Bourgoin’s defense attorney Robert Katims explains insanity defense law to the jury during Bourgoin’s murder trial in Vermont Superior Court in Burlington on Wednesday. Bourgoin is facing five counts of second-degree murder for a crash that killed five teenagers on I-89 in Williston in 2016. Bourgoin claims he was insane at the time of the crash. Pool photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

‘I concluded the opposite’

Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George, the prosecutor, in cross-examining Kapoor pointed to inconsistencies in Bourgoin’s recollections of events, including in statements made to others who examined him.

George questioned Kapoor about the search terms Bourgoin had been looking up, saying that they were popular search terms across the country at the time given the presidential election that was a month away.

“It was a politically charged time,” Kapoor replied, “and there were a lot of things related to hacking, Julian Assange, Wikileaks, the FBI — those were all things in the news in 2016.”

The prosecutor also asked Kapoor, if a person with the same diagnosis of Bourgoin could become full of rage or suicidal under significant stress.

“People with, in particular, borderline personality traits, can become suicidal, can become psychotic, both of those things can happen under stress,” the doctor replied.

“You believe in this case there is evidence that supports the state’s theory?” George then asked.

“Oh, certainly there is, but on the whole, I concluded the opposite,” Kapoor responded. “But, there is certainly evidence on both sides.”

Prosecutors, after Kapoor’s testimony, started presenting their rebuttal case. Later this week, Dr. Paul Cotton is expected to testify for the prosecution about his determination that Bourgoin was not insane.

On the job

Three workers at Lake Champlain Chocolates warehouse in Williston testified Wednesday for the prosecution about their interactions with Bourgoin, who had been employed there as a shipping associate.

Bourgoin clocked out for what was expected to be his lunch break at 12:04 p.m. on the Friday before the late Saturday night crash, according to one of the witnesses.

And, he never returned.

Christine Fabian, a manager at the chocolate company, testified that she called Bourgoin later that afternoon, and he told her he was sick with a stomach ailment.

Then, she said, he told her that was resigning because he needed more money than he was making in the job.

Fabian testified that earlier that day she saw Bourgoin at work and he appeared to be “really down.” Also, she said, in the time before he quit, Bourgoin started parking his truck further from other employees and was often pacing in the parking lot while talking on his cellphone.

His direct supervisor at the warehouse termed Bourgoin “efficient,” while another coworker had a different opinion.

Luke Gauthier, who worked in the warehouse alongside Bourgoin, told the jury that on the job Bourgoin was lazy and slow.

“I had to pick up the slack,” Gauthier added.

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