Jodi LaClaire (Reformer file photo)
Jodi LaClaire (Reformer file photo)

BRATTLEBORO -- Jodi LaClaire arrived at court Tuesday afternoon as a longtime inmate of the Vermont Department of Corrections.

But she departed as a free woman, at least for now.

LaClaire, acquitted of murder but convicted of theft in September, went home with her boyfriend after Judge David Suntag reduced her bail from $150,000 to $10,000.

She must return next month to be sentenced on seven financial-exploitation charges. But for now, LaClaire is free from prison for the first time in nearly two years.

"She's as happy as I've seen her," defense attorney Dan Sedon said.

LaClaire, 39, of Bennington, N.H., is a former nursing assistant at Brattleboro's Thompson House. She had been accused of administering a fatal dose of insulin in March 2009 to 83-year-old Nita Lowery, a longtime resident of the care home.

Prosecutors from the state attorney general's office also accused LaClaire of stealing more than $3,000 from Lowery's USAA account via ATM withdrawals in Brattleboro and Keene, N.H.

After a 13-day trial in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division, a jury on Sept. 27 acquitted LaClaire of second-degree murder and one count of abuse of a vulnerable adult.

But the same panel convicted her of six counts of financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult and one count of attempted financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult.

LaClaire's sentencing on those charges is scheduled for Jan. 10.

In the meantime, though, Sedon and fellow defense attorney Rick Ammons had argued that LaClaire's bail -- which had been raised to $150,000 when she was charged with murder in January 2012 -- should be reduced to $10,000.

That was the bail initially set when LaClaire had been arraigned on the financial-exploitation counts the year prior. She posted bail at that time, but she has been incarcerated since the bail was raised.

Ammons noted that LaClaire, when she was free, never failed to appear in court.

"Jodi is invested and engaged and very interested and very involved in this case in a meaningful way," he told Suntag. "I submit to you that she is not a risk of flight."

The defense attorneys also worked to convince the judge that LaClaire has a place to stay outside prison walls. To do that, they called her boyfriend, Michael Gauvin, to the stand.

Gauvin testified that he has been a resident of Bennington, N.H., since 1990 and is employed as a machinist. He said he and LaClaire "dated for quite some time" and lived together starting in 2009.

Gauvin said he does not drink and has no guns in his home, and he said LaClaire has "never, ever" been violent or threatening.

"Do you want her back in your life on a regular basis?" Ammons asked.

"Most definitely," Gauvin replied.

Assistant Attorney General Ultan Doyle argued against lowering LaClaire's bail, saying there is "no evidence that the defendant has any ties at all to Vermont and certainly not in the Brattleboro area."

He added that, "when bail was originally set on the financial-exploitation charges, there was a presumption of innocence." That's no longer the case, as LaClaire has been convicted on those counts.

Given that conviction, Doyle said, "from the state's perspective, the risk of flight has increased dramatically."

Furthermore, Doyle indicated that his office is not going to stop talking about Lowery's death -- even though LaClaire was acquitted of murder.

"The state plans to introduce evidence of the homicide as part of the sentencing," Doyle said. "And we'll be asking for a significant period of incarceration."

Talk of homicide spurred concern among LaClaire's defense team.

"That matter's been litigated," Ammons said. "I don't think it's appropriate for them to do so."

Suntag said such arguments may or may not be allowed at sentencing. But at this point, he said, "we have seven convictions for financial crimes."

"The fact that she's been convicted is obviously an important issue," Suntag said. "But she's been convicted of these (financial) offenses, not homicide."

The judge said LaClaire's time served in prison is "a lot of incarceration for these offenses, pre-trial." And he noted her previous lack of a criminal record as well as a "stable place" to stay in New Hampshire.

"I don't see, at this point, the justification for continuing the amount of bail that was imposed in connection with a homicide charge for which she's now been acquitted," Suntag said.

He reduced the bail to $10,000 but also imposed several additional conditions of release; those include no contact with any member of the Lowery family and no visits to Thompson House.

LaClaire cannot serve as a caretaker "in any capacity," the judge ruled. She also must report to Brattleboro police twice weekly and must remain at Gauvin's residence unless there is a "specific need" to travel.

Sedon said his client's medical condition -- she's an insulin-dependent diabetic -- might necessitate such trips.

"Ms. LaClaire has regular, ongoing needs every day," Sedon said.

Signing the conditions of her release turned out to be the only remaining hurdle between LaClaire and freedom. Officials determined that a $10,000 bond posted by a bail bondsman in 2011 remained in effect for her case.

Not long after Suntag's ruling, LaClaire was officially released from state custody. She hugged Gauvin and thanked her attorneys in a hallway outside the courtroom.

As she departed, Sedon said there are "a number of issues" that he and Ammons may appeal to the state Supreme Court. But that would not happen until after next month's sentencing hearing, Sedon said.

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