LaClaire found not guilty of murder
After deliberating for just five hours, a panel of eight women and four men also acquitted LaClaire, 39, of Bennington, N.H., of one count of abuse of a vulnerable adult in connection with Lowery's 2009 death in Brattleboro.
However, the jury convicted LaClaire on six counts of financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult and one count of attempted financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult, charges that stemmed from thefts from Lowery's bank account.
"We came here to try a murder case, and we did. And I'm very satisfied with that result," LaClaire defense attorney Dan Sedon said minutes after the verdict was announced.
On the financial-exploitation convictions, Sedon said he feels there are "significant issues for appeal." He also said he would seek to amend LaClaire's bail so that she might be released from jail pending sentencing on those counts.
Vermont Assistant Attorney General Matt Levine declined comment, saying the matter "is still a pending case" due to possible appeals.
John Lowery III, the victim's son, declared that he is "grateful for my family and grateful for the state of Vermont."
Asked whether he had any disappointment about the not-guilty verdicts, he replied, "No, because everyone knows."
LaClaire had been accused of injecting Lowery with insulin on March 23, 2009, at Thompson House care home. Lowery was a long-time resident of the Maple Street facility, and LaClaire was the sole nursing assistant working on the elderly woman's floor the night before she was found unresponsive.
LaClaire also was accused of withdrawing more than $3,000 from Lowery's account as she lay comatose in subsequent days.
The verdict came on the trial's 13th day after jurors had heard 29 witnesses. Before dismissing jurors from the courtroom for deliberations Friday, Judge David Suntag told them that "the state must overcome the presumption of innocence."
Prosecutors from the Vermont attorney general's office attempted to do that even though they could not produce a needle or insulin that might have been used in the attack.
But in his closing argument Friday morning, Assistant Attorney General Ultan Doyle declared that "you wouldn't expect to find that kind of evidence in a case like this."
Nonetheless, Doyle assured jurors, "the state has proven beyond a reasonable doubt the cause of Nita Lowery's death."
Doyle began by showing jurors a photo of Lowery and describing her as a feisty and intelligent -- "somebody who was active in her community, somebody who loved life."
He quickly narrowed his focus, however, to March 23, 2009.
"At some point, Jodi LaClaire went into Nita Lowery's room, and she injected her with insulin," Doyle said. "Why she did that becomes very, very clear when you look at what happened in the early morning hours of March 23."
Activity began in Lowery's room that morning, a Vermont State Police analyst had testified, with an internal search performed on Lowery's Dell desktop computer for the words "credit card."
There were subsequent online searches and calls made from Lowery's phone, all in an ultimately successful attempt to establish a personal-identification number for Lowery's USAA bank account, Doyle said.
By LaClaire's own statements to Thompson House administrators, "she puts herself in that room at the exact time that a PIN was assigned to the credit card," Doyle said. "She also puts herself in that room at the time that Nita Lowery was in a coma."
ATM transactions with Lowery's card began about an hour after medics were called to her Thompson House room, prosecution witnesses testified. On Friday, Doyle used photos and evidence summaries propped on easels to painstakingly walk jurors through each financial-exploitation count.
He placed bank-surveillance images side-by-side with 2011 booking photos of LaClaire, pointing out similarities in facial features and hair styles.
"The state has proven that Jodi LaClaire was responsible for each of the charged transactions," he said.
Proving that LaClaire injected Lowery with insulin was more tricky.
LaClaire currently is a diagnosed diabetic, but defense attorney Dan Sedon contends she was not at the time of Lowery's death. The state's arrest affidavit claimed LaClaire had been a diabetic for five to 10 years, but prosecutors never presented evidence to that effect at trial.
Instead, a number of experts who examined the state's evidence testified that Lowery, who was not diabetic, had suffered a severe, externally induced episode of hypoglycemia -- or low blood sugar -- that plunged her into a coma and caused irreversible brain damage.
Among those experts was Montreal-based neuropathologist Dr. Roland Auer, who said he saw an unmistakable "fingerprint" of hypoglycemic damage -- not damage from stroke or some other medical condition -- in Lowery's brain.
"The only scenario that makes sense is that Jodi LaClaire injected insulin to disable or render Nita Lowery unconscious," Doyle said.
But Sedon contended that such a conclusion made no sense.
In his closing argument, the defense attorney wasted no time in pointing out that Vermont's deputy chief medical examiner -- while concluding that Lowery had suffered from a hypoglycemic event -- would not assign a manner of death in the case.
Dr. Elizabeth Bundock "could not and would not conclude that a homicide occurred here," Sedon reminded jurors. "Folks, that's it. That's the end of the story. And the state never dealt with this problem. They just glossed over it."
Sedon said prosecutors had not shown how his client allegedly injected Lowery. They also had not proven that LaClaire had obtained insulin or even that she knew anything about the drug's effects, Sedon said.
"Shouldn't you actually demand evidence of that fact?" he asked jurors.
While the state had called 28 witnesses, Sedon called just one -- Dr. Vincent Marks, a London-based hypoglycemia expert who said it was highly unlikely that Lowery ever had low blood sugar. Marks also was critical of the lack of the medical data available in the case, saying he was "amazed at how little genuine hard evidence was available."
Auer, the prosecution witness, was "confident," Sedon said. "Dr. Marks brought a lifetime of experience here and laid waste to that confidence."
In reference to the alleged thefts, defense attorneys questioned the quality and reliability of the ATM photos. And Sedon said the state had produced "assumptions" -- not evidence -- on how LaClaire allegedly obtained Lowery's credit card and her USAA member number.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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