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Tyler Heffernan

Other Vermont Exonerations
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At about 3 a.m. on September 2, 2015, police broke up a fight outside Nectar’s, a bar and restaurant in Burlington, Vermont, and arrested 25-year-old Tyler Heffernan on misdemeanor charges of simple assault and disorderly conduct. Heffernan was accused of attacking 30-year-old Gavin Sloma, who was knocked unconscious and suffered a head injury.

On January 26, 2016, Heffernan went to trial in Chittenden County Superior Court. After a jury had been selected, Heffernan’s defense attorney asked for a continuance because she had just received a message from a witness who was critical to Heffernan’s defense.

The lawyer said the witness, identified as R.C., had seen the fight. She was going to testify that it was the result of a misunderstanding between two intoxicated men and that Sloma started the fight by attacking Heffernan.

The witness reported that she had entered a treatment center and would not be released until April 2, 2016. The prosecution objected to the defense’s request for a continuance, and the judge noted that a continuance could only be granted with a sworn affidavit from a physician. The following day, the defense attorney returned with a sworn statement from the lawyer and a “verification of inpatient hospitalization” from the institution. The attorney’s affidavit said that she had been unable to reach the witness’s treating physician, but that a counselor had faxed a document showing R.C.’s diagnosis, treatment plan, and expected discharge date.

The judge, however, declined to continue the trial because there was no affidavit from R.C.’s physician. The judge noted that R.C. had spoken to a police officer who had recorded a portion of her statement at the scene. Although the first 30 seconds of the recording had only video and no audio, the judge said he would allow that recording to be played for the jury.

The trial then commenced. Sloma testified that he had been drinking in Esox, a bar located next to Nectar’s, and that he didn’t remember anything that happened after he left Esox until he woke up in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

Travis Horton, who was at Esox, testified that Heffernan was leaning against the wall in front of Nectar’s when Sloma walked out of Esox and that “a fight broke out.” He said that although he heard cursing, he did not see how or when the fight started.

Jamael Regular, who was working security at Nectar’s, testified that he knew Sloma as a customer. He said that Heffernan worked at Nectar’s, but was not working that night, and that Heffernan always rode his bike to the bar.

Regular said he was helping members of a band load their equipment when he saw Heffernan talking to Sloma. “Very close—close in contact conversation where you’re, just like, you know, can’t really hear what they’re saying, but know that they’re in somewhat of a deep conversation because they’re just really close,” Regular testified. At that point, Heffernan put Sloma “in a hold and brought him to the ground.”

Regular testified that a group of people then separated Heffernan and Sloma.

A security camera at Esox caught part of the incident. However, an awning partially blocked the view, so the video only showed Heffernan and Sloma from the knees down and did not capture how the fight began. It did show Heffernan looking for his glasses, which had been knocked off and then handed back to him.

Hearing the commotion, Burlington police arrived on foot seconds later. One officer, Patrick Hartnett, turned on his body camera as he ran over. Hartnett testified that he couldn’t immediately figure out what was going on, but he saw Heffernan approach Sloma, put his hands to Sloma’s throat, and slam Sloma to the ground.

Hartnett’s body camera video showed Heffernan take off his backpack, pick up something up from the ground, say something about his glasses, and walk over to Sloma. Someone could be heard saying “get…off me,” and then Heffernan was seen grabbing Sloma by the neck. Hartnett and his partner then grabbed Heffernan and arrested him.

As Heffernan was being handcuffed, he repeatedly said that he just wanted his bike and that “some dude” had jumped him.

None of the witnesses had seen how the fight actually started, except for R.C. After Heffernan was in custody, R.C. approached another police officer who had arrived.

The first thirty seconds of R.C.'s video-recorded statement were silent and showed R.C. approaching the officer and beginning to speak. Both were standing away from the crowd. When the audio began, R.C. was in mid-sentence, saying something about ‘gentlemen talking.”

She went on to say a man with glasses was standing on the street, and another man was “right there” with a bike between them. She described the encounter as a “drunken misunderstanding.” R.C. said that Sloma—“the guy that was knocked out—was the guy who attacked the guy with the glasses.”

R.C. said Heffernan thought Sloma was trying to take his bike. Sloma thought Heffernan was trying to pick a fight and “lunged” at Heffernan.

During closing argument, the prosecution told the jury—despite the admission of the police body camera video—that there was “no evidence that (Sloma) ever hit anybody, or tried to hit anybody and missed. Not one witness said that.” The prosecutor also noted that R.C. had not come to testify, without explaining why.

On January 27, 2016, the jury convicted Heffernan of simple assault and disorderly conduct. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail followed by 60 days of home monitoring.

In December 2017, the Vermont Supreme Court set aside Heffernan’s convictions and ordered a new trial. The court ruled that the trial judge’s refusal to allow a continuance was an abuse of discretion. The court said that the defense had made a good faith effort to get the proper documentation and that the judge had decided to emphasize “speed over the defendant’s right to present a defense.”

The police recording of R.C., inaudible for the first 30 seconds, “was not an adequate replacement for live testimony from R.C.,” the court said.

On April 3, 2018, the prosecution dismissed the charges.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/6/2018
State:Vermont
County:Chittenden
Most Serious Crime:Assault
Additional Convictions:Misdemeanor
Reported Crime Date:2015
Convicted:2016
Exonerated:2018
Sentence:30 days
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:25
Contributing Factors:Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No