Following the pre-trial death of the lone suspect in a Vermont murder, the victim's family is calling for changes in state policy aimed at providing more comfort and information to victims and their loved ones.
"We live with this every single second of our lives," said Joanne Kortendick of Colorado.
Kortendick's sister, social worker Kathleen Smith, was stabbed to death nearly nine years ago in Burlington.
Police and prosecutors insist drifter Jose Pazos was the murderer. They believe Pazos held a grudge because Smith sided against him in a dispute with a mutual friend.
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Pazos had pleaded not guilty following his arrest in the days after the 2010 killing, but he recently died of heart problems before he could ever go on trial. Pazos remained in a state psychiatric care facility as lawyers and experts debated for years whether he was mentally fit to face trial.
"Every single time he was not brought to trial took a little bit out of us," Kortendick said in a phone interview Monday with necn.
Kortendick and other loved ones of Kathleen Smith collaborated on a lengthy written reflection on their time since the fall of 2010, which necn has published below:
Smith's loved ones are calling for reforms that would allow for better information-sharing with victims’ families on the status of cases, understanding there will likely be some limits on that.
Kortendick said for the better part of a decade, she and other relatives often didn't know where things stood in the courts, because of privacy rules placed on certain court hearings focusing on mental health issues.
When asked what her plan is now that Pazos will never face trial, Kortendick answered, "To advocate for improvements in the system that will not result in any other family having to go through the nightmare that we have."
Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George said she has deep compassion for Smith's family and friends, and hopes the Burlington community can focus on positive memories of Kathleen Smith — who George noted was widely described as being artistic, caring, selfless, and driven by a desire to help others.
"It's not justice for Kathleen for him to have died before being tried," George said of Pazos. "I think there absolutely needs to be more victim-centered communication from the Department of Mental Health."
Necn took the new calls for change to the Vermont Department of Mental Health, whose deputy commissioner said Monday he couldn't comment on specific concerns from Kathleen Smith's family due to confidentiality rules.
"Due to confidentiality laws, DMH cannot comment on the specifics of this letter," Deputy Commissioner Mourning Fox said in a statement in response to a request from necn. "We appreciate how frustrating it must be for interested parties not to have a voice in family court mental health proceedings. However, these proceedings are, due to their nature, confidential and not open to the public. DMH does, when appropriate, communicate with prosecuting States Attorneys should there be an individual in DMH custody who also has involvement with the criminal courts. While DMH has to operate within the boundaries of state and federal laws related to treatment and protection of health information, we continue to be committed to working with the various aspects of the criminal justice system where the mental health system intersects in order to continue improving the overall system here in Vermont.
Smith's family members say they'll keep up the advocacy, as a lasting legacy to a woman they say brought a smile to everyone she was around.