Juror dismissed from LaClaire murder trial
BRATTLEBORO - And then there were 15.
On the sixth day of the Jodi LaClaire murder trial in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division, Judge David Suntag dismissed a juror because he had been contacted about the case via e-mail.
The dismissal still leaves three alternate jurors on a panel now consisting of 15 members. It also highlights the seriousness with which Suntag and attorneys on both sides are approaching the case, as the juror in question was dismissed even though he maintained that he had discussed the trial with no one.
As defense attorney Dan Sedon said, "the integrity of the jury is paramount."
It took two days last week to select 16 jurors - 10 women and six men -- to hear evidence against and in defense of LaClaire, who is accused of giving a fatal dose of insulin to 83-year-old Nita Lowery in March 2009 at the Thompson House care home in Brattleboro.
LaClaire, 39, of Bennington, N.H., also allegedly withdrew money from Lowery's account after the elderly woman fell into a coma.
Twelve jurors will decide the case when testimony concludes.
Concerns about jury integrity first surfaced Tuesday afternoon. The male juror was brought into the courtroom and questioned about an e-mail he had received the previous day from a woman who works for him.
The woman wrote that she was going to contact the Vermont Attorney General's office -- which is prosecuting the LaClaire case -- "in regard to her being uncomfortable with me being a work colleague of hers" and sitting on the jury, the man said.
He assured Suntag that "I did not discuss the case with her." He also said he had not spoken to the woman previously about Thompson House.
No decisions were made at that point, in part because the juror left the courthouse before he could be questioned further.
But on Wednesday morning, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Levine elaborated on the incident, saying the woman who had sent the e-mail "was, a number of years ago, briefly interviewed as a possible witness in the (LaClaire) case."
Levine did not say why the woman was considered as a witness. But he said that, after prosecutors decided not to call her to testify, she "called our office and was upset with that decision."
The woman then called the attorney general's office again on Tuesday. Levine said a detective called her back to say her contact with a juror was "not acceptable."
"We did not attempt to elicit any information (about her concerns)," Levine said. "We just informed her that this was not appropriate."
Suntag suggested that there may have been an element of attempted juror coercion in the woman's e-mail.
"There are criminal statutes designed to avoid such things," the judge said.
But the attorneys also said they were concerned that the male juror had not, on his own, told court officials about receiving the e-mail. Each morning, and after lunch breaks, Suntag asks the jurors whether they have had any contact with anyone about the case.
After conferring with Sedon, Levine said, "we both think that this juror should now be excused."
Sedon added that "we don't have confidence that he can or will follow the court's instructions."
Suntag called the juror into his chambers and dismissed him there. Beforehand, he said he would thank the man for his service.
"The other jurors were not told anything about what went awry," Suntag said.
Before Wednesday's lunch break, the judge added this to his standard admonition: "Let us know if somebody tries to talk to you about the case."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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