BRATTLEBORO --A former caretaker at a Brattleboro care home was sentenced to prison time on Friday for stealing thousands of dollars from an elderly resident's credit-card account.

Jodi LaClaire, 39, of Bennington, N.H., received a mostly suspended jail sentence in favor of probation. And, because she had been charged and later acquitted of murdering the same resident, LaClaire already has served all or most of the two years of mandatory jail time ordered by Judge David Suntag for the thefts.

The sentence disappointed the family of the 83-year-old victim, Nita Lowery. But Suntag said he could not -- in spite of continuing argument to the contrary from prosecutors -- consider evidence of Lowery's death when sentencing LaClaire for financial exploitation.

"I don't believe the evidence in this case, frankly, established ... that Ms. LaClaire was criminally responsible for the death of Ms. Lowery," Suntag said.

Jurors who heard LaClaire's case in September agreed with that assessment, acquitting her of second-degree murder and abuse of a vulnerable adult in connection with Lowery's death on April 1, 2009.

Prosecutors from the state attorney general's office had argued unsuccessfully that LaClaire, then a certified nursing assistant at Thompson House, had injected Lowery, a longtime resident of the home, with what would prove to be a fatal dose of insulin nine days earlier.

The same jury, however, convicted LaClaire of six counts of financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult and one count of attempted financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult.

That followed detailed evidence that LaClaire had used Lowery's phone and computer to establish a personal-identification number for the elderly woman's USAA credit card. Authorities said LaClaire then helped herself to more than $3,000 in cash advances from Lowery's account at ATMs in Brattleboro and Keene, N.H. as Lowery lay comatose.

LaClaire, released from prison when her bail was lowered last month, returned to Brattleboro on Friday for sentencing on the financial-exploitation charges.

Prosecutors argued for a stiff sentence -- three to nine years in prison for each count, to be served consecutively.

Assistant Attorney General Matt Levine argued that, in spite of LaClaire's acquittal on the murder charge, Lowery's death "is relevant conduct to the financial-exploitation charges, and we're going to ask the court to consider those facts" for sentencing purposes.

Levine reiterated some of the circumstantial murder evidence that had been presented at trial, concluding that "only Jodi LaClaire was the one who could have done this."
But defense attorney Dan Sedon protested, saying the "record in this trial is clean" and the jury's acquittal on the murder charge must be respected.

"If an acquittal is not final, why bother?" Sedon asked. "Is it actually just a game? Does the state get a second bite at the apple?"

He also again pointed out that Vermont's deputy chief medical examiner could not conclude that Lowery's death was a homicide.

Sedon argued for an overall two- to eight-year sentence, with LaClaire mandated to serve just two years in prison followed by a probationary term.

Suntag said he saw no need to address the legal question of whether the court could consider evidence of the unproven murder when sentencing LaClaire for theft.

The evidence presented at trial, Suntag said, simply was not strong enough "to reach a conclusion that Ms. LaClaire was responsible for the death of another human being."

Nonetheless, Suntag said, the offenses for which LaClaire was convicted were significant.

"There's nothing minimal, and there's nothing minor, about what Ms. LaClaire did," the judge said.

Suntag imposed a five- to 10-year prison sentence that is suspended in favor of probation, aside from two years that LaClaire must serve.

Given the time she spent in prison following her arrest, that leaves LaClaire with little or no time still to serve. There was some lingering debate on Friday about whether she may owe the state four days behind bars.

Otherwise, she will serve an indefinite probationary term. Conditions of that probation include orders that LaClaire cannot serve as a caretaker for anyone and cannot serve "in any capacity where she has access to another person or agency's money," Suntag said.

Prior to sentencing, Lowery's daughter, Gail LaHaise of Walpole, N.H., had read a statement condemning LaClaire as a "cowardly" and "unconscionable" felon who had violated the trust of Nita Lowery and her family.

"It is our wish that Ms. LaClaire be incarcerated for as long as possible," LaHaise said. "The public needs to be protected from such a merciless predator."

After the sentence was imposed, LaHaise said the family was "clearly disappointed, but not surprised."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.