Vermont man charged with kidnapping Bennett could face death penalty

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(Host) A Randolph man charged with kidnapping a 12-year-old girl who was found dead near his home could face the death penalty in the case.

There is no death penalty in Vermont law. The defendant was charged under a federal law, which allows for capital punishment.

But the case could lead to a statewide discussion about capital punishment in Vermont.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) It’s extremely rare for Vermont juries to consider the death penalty. The last time was in 2006, when Donald Fell was convicted and sentenced to death for kidnapping and murder.

That case was filed in federal court because Fell took his victim across state lines – which made it a federal crime.

The case against Michael Jacques of Randolph is different. Federal prosecutors have so far not alleged that Jacques took 12-year-old Brooke Bennett outside Vermont. Instead, he is being charged under a new, 2006 law that makes it a federal crime to kidnap someone with the help of interstate communication.

U.S. Attorney Tom Anderson explained:

(Anderson) The criminal complaint alleged that Jacques used an interstate facility of foreign commerce. The interstate facilities alleged used are the Internet and telephones.

(Dillon) Prosecutors say Jacques used Internet email and web sites as part of the plot to kidnap Brooke Bennett.

Federal kidnapping charges allow for capital punishment if the victim is murdered. Anderson said the final decision on the penalty to be sought would be made by the US attorney general.

He said state and federal prosecutors weigh a number of factors when they have overlapping jurisdiction.
(Anderson) As investigation proceeds, we’re in close contact, we’re in close consultation and prosecution decisions as to where a case should be brought are based on a number of factors. And based on the factors and evidence we had in this case, a determination was made to file the kidnapping charges in federal court.

(Dillon) Vermont Law School Professor Michael Mello is an expert on the death penalty and a critic of capital punishment. He believes Jacques was charged in federal court because Vermont law doesn’t allow the death penalty. Now he says prosecutors can seek that sentence.

(Mello) I think that’s the only reason. There is no other reason that makes sense to me for making this a federal case.

(Dillon) Mello points out that the 2006 law that Jacques is charged under has yet to be seriously challenged in federal court. He says a lengthy legal battle could result if prosecutors seek the death penalty under the new law.

(Mello) So it could end up … that the Jacques case ends up making some significant federal constitutional and federal statutory law with respect to the death penalty… We are in uncharted territory here.

(Dillon) Mello also expects the case to trigger a statewide debate about capital punishment – and whether it should again be allowed under Vermont law.

Jason Gibbs is spokesman for Governor Jim Douglas. He says Douglas was in touch with law enforcement as the case developed, and was aware that the federal courts allow for the death penalty. Gibbs said Douglas believes in capital punishment under some circumstances.

(Gibbs) If the U.S. Attorney prosecutors and convicts an individual or individual for Brooke’s murder, the governor believes the most severe penalty available, the death penalty, should be imposed.

(Dillon) But Gibbs says Douglas is not pushing for a new Vermont death penalty law.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.


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