MONTPELIER - The state Supreme Court ruled yesterday that a 2005 decision that found Vermont's laws on sentencing murderers unconstitutional did not apply to a long list of killers sentenced before it was issued.
The court ruled in December 2005 that Douglas Provost had been improperly sentenced in a quadruple killing in Belvidere in 2001 because a judge toughened the penalty without input from a jury. That had prompted a flurry of appeals from people serving time for murder and hoping to make the same arguments.
But in its ruling yesterday, the justices shot down the appeals of three of those inmates, saying its ruling in the Provost case did not mark a significant enough change in the law to warrant reopening the sentences of as many as 30 killers now in custody of the state Department of Corrections.
The high court said it did not mind changing the rules for a case before it and for future cases. But it expressed reluctance to change the rules affecting cases decided long ago.
"To ensure some finality in criminal cases, we typically apply such new rules retroactively only to cases on direct review, rather than allow endless collateral attacks on convictions or sentences as new rules emerge," the court said.
Provost, 40, of Fairfax was convicted of four counts of murder in the July 2001 shootings of Mitchell Bishop, 46; Bishop's daughter, Jessica, 18; her fiance, George Weatherwax, 19; and family friend Deric Davis, 20.
In its 2005 decision, the high court ordered the trial court to issue a new sentence for Provost, saying the aggravating factors that helped make it four terms of life without parole were considered only by Judge Edward Cashman and not put before the jury.
The court's decision not to apply that principle retroactively to other cases was hailed yesterday by Assistant Attorney General David Tartter.
"It's an important decision," Tartter said. "It's good because it gives finality in those cases. People we thought were safely put away for good years ago continue to be so, as opposed to having it reopened and up in the air."