Bennington murder defendant, found not competent to stand trial, is sent to psychiatric hospital

Vermont Mental Health Hospital
The Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin. File photo by Cate Chant/VTDigger
Darren Pronto. courtesy photo

The court has ordered a defendant in the Bennington murder to be hospitalized after two psychological tests found he was unfit to stand trial. But his murder charge and his without bail status remain.

Defendant Darren Pronto, 34, was transferred Monday from a state detention facility to the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin, where state officials said he was due to begin treatment.

Pronto, of Pownal, was scheduled to be hospitalized for the first 90 days with a “serious mental illness” that rendered him unfit to face criminal charges, Vermont Superior Court Justice Kerry McDonald-Cady said in a written order dated March 7. December. He is scheduled to return to court for a status hearing on March 6.

The results of his two mental health exams are not available to the public, but a police report in the January 2021 murder case quotes Pronto’s sister as saying he was recently diagnosed with schizophrenia.

He is accused of fatally dismembering Emily Hamann, 26, as she walked the Riverwalk in downtown Bennington one morning. Police said Pronto jumped her and cut her throat after she lay in wait. Public records do not make his alleged motive clear.

According to Richter, if Pronto no longer requires hospital-level care within his 90-day hospital stay, he can be transferred to the Middlesex Therapeutic Community Residence, a community-based secure living facility.

The Vermont Department of Mental Health, which took Pronto into custody from Correctional Services, must notify attorneys on the case within 24 hours of its transfer to Middlesex.

He had been held at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield since January 2021 with no possibility of bail. The court maintained its no-bail status.

Under a new state law called Act 57, prosecutors should also be notified 10 days before any of the following events occur: the mental health department will not seek to renew his order, he will be released from department care and he will be released from a hospital or a safe facility in the community.

The court’s order is based on joint recommendations made by the Bennington County Attorney’s Office and Pronto’s attorneys in November.

“We are pleased that the order adopted by the court will safeguard public safety while addressing any concerns over jurisdiction,” the prosecutor, Assistant Prosecutor Jared Bianchi, said in an interview.

He declined to comment on why the state decided to uphold Pronto’s murder charges rather than dismiss them to refile them when his prosecution resumes.

Bennington County Prosecutor Erica Marthage and Pronto Defense Attorney Fred Bragdon did not respond to a message seeking comment Tuesday.

Hamman’s mother, Kelly Carroll, lobbied for the passage of Bill 57 during the previous legislature. She’s glad the law introduced a new notification system, as Pronto was previously hospitalized on a criminal charge and then returned to the community without the knowledge of public safety officials.

“The fact that this time it’s a little bit harder for him to get out of prison is certainly a win,” Carroll told VTDigger.

But, she said, nothing will fill the void of her daughter’s death. “There’s an emptiness every day that will never go away, and it’s especially pronounced around the holidays,” she said.

Carroll hopes the treatment will restore Pronto’s sanity and allow him to stand trial. The maximum penalty for first-degree murder is life imprisonment.

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