BRATTLEBORO - Even at age 83, and more than eight years after suffering a stroke, Nita Lowery remained -- in the words of those who knew her best -- strong, intelligent, outgoing, determined and even "glamorous."
But the mystery of why Lowery was found slumped over and unconscious just after 7 a.m. on March 23, 2009, is the subject of a murder trial that began Wednesday morning in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division.
Prosecutors say Jodi LaClaire, the only nursing assistant working on Lowery's floor at Thompson House the preceding night, gave Lowery a fatal dose of insulin and almost immediately began using the woman's debit card to withdraw cash.
Lowery had multiple health problems but was not a diagnosed diabetic. LaClaire is a diabetic who uses injectable insulin.
"The only reasonable medical conclusion for Nita Lowery's coma and death was that she received a large dose of insulin from outside her body -- like an injection," Matthew Levine, a Vermont assistant attorney general, declared during opening arguments Wednesday morning.
But defense attorney Dan Sedon told jurors that there is no strong evidence showing that LaClaire injected Lowery or stole her money. Rather, he painted a picture of investigators working desperately for years to build a case that nonetheless stands on a shaky, circumstantial foundation.
Even on official documents, "the manner of death remains undetermined," Sedon said.
LaClaire, 39, of Bennington, N.
After two days of jury selection for a trial that is scheduled to last through Sept. 27, Levine began his opening argument by recounting what was then a morning routine at Thompson House: A woman who worked in the laundry brought two cups of coffee, one for Lowery and the other for a resident in an adjoining room.
"Someone was blocking her path," Levine said. "It was Jodi LaClaire."
LaClaire took the coffee, investigators allege, because Lowery already was unconscious in her wheelchair in her room.
In that room, starting around 4 a.m., there had been a "flurry of activity," Levine said. There were searches on Lowery's computer related to the elderly woman's USAA credit card as well as calls made from her phone, "all in an attempt to establish a PIN number" for a card that never had one and never had been used for cash withdrawals, Levine said.
When her shift ended at 7 a.m., LaClaire gave her standard reports -- described as "nonchalant" in one account -- and departed.
"She just told me that she had given Nita her cup of coffee in the morning," said Louise Winslow, then a licensed practical nurse at Thompson House.
But employees on the incoming day shift noticed immediately that Lowery was not anywhere to be found. Normally, she would be front and center, eager for her bath.
A quick check found Lowery "slumped in a wheelchair, unresponsive," Winslow said. "She was frothing from the mouth. We couldn't wake her."
Medics arrived within minutes, and Lowery was transported to Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. Left behind in her room was a full cup of coffee.
"This was unusual because Nita Lowery usually had two cups of coffee every morning to deal with migraine headaches," Levine said. "She found that the coffee helped."
Meanwhile, around 8 a.m., "Nita Lowery's card was used for the first time for a cash withdrawal," the prosecutor said.
Authorities allege that there were several subsequent cash withdrawals at ATMs in Keene, N.H.
Lowery's daughter, Gail LaHaise, kept close watch on her mother's finances and signed her checks. She testified that her mother kept the USAA card in a locked filing cabinet, the key for which hung from a bracelet on her wrist.
Lowery did not do her banking online, LaHaise said. And, as for a debit card that could be used at ATMs, "she did not know how to use one and she didn't want to learn," LaHaise said.
LaHaise also testified about her mother's final days. Family remembers decided, after consulting with doctors, to withdraw life support; Lowery was returned to Thompson House, where she died April 1, 2009.
"We decided to let her go," LaHaise said.
Levine said a pathologist ruled that Lowery had suffered from a sudden, extreme drop in blood sugar and couldn't say why. But he pledged that jurors will hear from medical experts "who considered and ruled out a variety of causes" for Lowery's death, adding that Thompson House administrators also ruled out a mistakenly administered injection.
"So then the conclusion becomes, someone did this on purpose," Levine said.
But Sedon, who is accompanied in this case by Richard Ammons, a Windham County public defender, began planting doubts with his opening argument:
-- He said there are several other potential causes for spontaneous hypoglycemia including alcohol (Lowery drank), tumors (she had an undiagnosed tumor in her lung at the time of her death) and malnourishment (Lowery was thin and had trouble eating).
Sedon said he would be calling London-based Vincent Marks, a "preeminent expert in the world on hypoglycemia," to testify at the trial.
He added that "the most-likely explanation for Nita Lowery's illness was some natural process."
-- Though he did not allege that someone else injected Lowery with insulin, Sedon spent time detailing tensions between Lowery and her grandson's then-girlfriend.
Both were frequent visitors at Thompson House, he said.
Sedon noted that, in October 2008, someone stole jewelry valued at $20,000 from Lowery's room. That crime remains unsolved, but Sedon said some family members suspected the girlfriend, who also was suspected of drug abuse.
The woman in question won't be testifying at this trial: "She's now dead," Sedon said. "She died in the gutter of chronic alcohol abuse."
-- Medics gave Lowery glucose in an attempt to revive her, Sedon said. But that also made it "impossible to determine whether she had insulin in her body."
"To this day, according to the actual requirements of medical science, it is difficult to say -- it's impossible -- whether she was hypoglycemic at that moment," Sedon said.
-- Also, there is no evidence that Lowery exhibited some signs of hypoglycemia such as seizure, thrashing or profuse sweating, Sedon said. And there was no insulin and no syringe found in Lowery's room.
-- Due to these issues and others, Sedon said, investigators "couldn't close this case" though they "went to extraordinary lengths" to do so.
He said the Lowery family grew frustrated and applied political pressure through the governor's office, leading law enforcement to "change the theory to fit the facts we have."
While LaClaire eventually was arrested in January 2012, Sedon argues that the state's case -- including bank-surveillance photos that might show multiple people making withdrawals with Lowery's card -- remains shoddy.
"These contradictions, these problems in the evidence -- they were never resolved," he said.
The case is scheduled to resume this morning with more prosecution witnesses.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.