Can murder suspect Michael Jacques get a fair trial in Vermont — or anywhere?
That was the question we posed in March while a federal judge considered whether saturation media coverage of the 2008 murder of Jacques' niece, 12-year-old Brooke Bennett, had made picking an unbiased jury all but impossible.
Jacques (pictured) stands accused of drugging, raping and murdering Bennett in a federal crime that could get him the death sentence. In asking to move the murder trial to New York or Connecticut, his lawyers presented polling data that showed 80 percent of Vermont respondents eligible for jury duty had some knowledge of the case — and more than half of those believed Jacques is probably or definitely guilty.
Federal prosecutors countered that other high-profile murder suspects, such as convicted killer Donald Fell, have received fair trials in Vermont — and that Jacques would be no different. The time to deal with biased jurors is when selecting a jury, prosecutors argued, not two years before.
Now, the judge has weighed in. Last week, U.S. District Judge William K. Sessions III issued a series of rulings in the case, among them that Jacques' trial will be held in Vermont. However, in a nod to the impact of the media glare, Sessions ruled that the jury will be drawn from the entire state rather than just northern Vermont, as would normally be the case in a Burlington trial.
While acknowledging the case has generated "immense" pretrial publicity, Sessions writes: "It remains for the jury selection process to ensure that community passion or enmity does not find its way into the jury box, and that jurors are seated who reach their conclusions 'based on evidence and argument in open court, and not by any outside influence, whether or private talk or public print.'"
The poll conducted by Jacques' defense team in December 2009 showed that only 21 percent of eligible jurors living near Albany, N.Y., a possible alternate venue for the trial, were familiar with the case, compared with 80 percent of Vermonters. Another poll, in October 2010, found 81 percent of Vermont respondents were familiar with the case, though that poll didn't screen for jury eligibility.
In his 23-page ruling, Sessions appeared unconvinced that the polls showed a prejudice problem.
"Neither the Venue Survey nor the follow-up inquired whether a respondent who had formed an opinion concerning Jacques' guilt could set aside that opinion and base a verdict solely on the evidence presented," the judge wrote. "The Venue Survey and the follow-up thus offer little assistance in determining whether an impartial jury can be empaneled."
On the question of news coverage, Sessions concluded that the Vermont media coverage of the case has been "largely factual" rather than inflammatory. "The language used in the Free Press to describe Jacques is far from inflammatory, referring to him as 'the accused, ' the 'primary suspect,' and the 'man charged with abducting Brooke Bennett.'"
"The thorough coverage of the case in the Burlington Free Press and the Rutland Herald exemplifies the journalism practiced by the Vermont media in general," Sessions wrote.
Regarding vitriolic comments made online about Jacques, a trend mentioned in the defense's argument to move venue, Sessions acknowledges that some online postings use "intemperate language to vilify Jacques, his lawyers and Vermont's criminal justice system." But he stresses that there's no way of knowing whether such commenters are eligible jurors — or whether they even live in Vermont.
Sessions dismissed the venue-change request "without prejudice," meaning Jacques can renew the motion to transfer if his lawyers can show at the time of jury selection that finding an impartial panel is not possible.