MONTPELIER – Michael Jacques' attorneys are seeking additional time to prepare a death penalty defense for the Randolph man accused of killing 12-year-old Brooke Bennett earlier this summer.
David Ruhnke and Jean Barrett, a New Jersey death penalty defense team representing Jacques in the federal case, filed a court motion late last month asking for an Oct. 5, 2009, deadline for prosecutors to say whether the death penalty will be sought.
Federal prosecutors responded with a court motion Friday saying they still are deliberating on the death penalty option and would make a decision before April 2009 – shortening by six months the timeline sought by the defendant.
U.S. Attorney Thomas Anderson wrote in the Nov. 7 court motion that the courts may not interfere with internal Department of Justice deliberations on seeking the death penalty in Jacques' case.
"The government opposes court intervention in its charging deliberations," Anderson wrote. "Such intervention would preclude the executive branch from obtaining information and reaching decisions with … the time-frame it deems appropriate."
The court feud over the use of the death penalty in the murder case comes less than a month after the 42-year-old Jacques was formally charged with Bennett's murder; he was held on other charges soon after her disappearance this summer.
Prosecutors say Jacques, who was Bennett's uncle, lured the girl to his home on June 25 under the premise that she would be attending a pool party. Instead, police say he drugged, raped and killed her before leaving her body in a shallow grave about a mile from his home.
The case shocked the small town of Braintree where Bennett lived and kicked off a series of off-session legislative hearings at the Vermont Statehouse focusing on how the state convicts and attempts to rehabilitate sex offenders. Jacques was a convicted sex offender.
Lawmakers are scheduled to unveil those recommendations at a 3 p.m. Statehouse press conference Wednesday.
Michael Mello, a professor at the Vermont Law School and a death penalty expert, said it is typical in these cases to see lots of pre-trial motions from both sides. But the move by the defense attorneys to dictate the timeline that the Justice Department can consider the death penalty is unusual, he said.
"It is very surprising that the defense is trying to persuade Judge [William K.] Sessions to intervene in the Justice Department's decision-making process," Mello said. "That raises some real separation of power issues and places us in uncharted territory."
Jacques' defense attorneys asked Sessions on Oct. 30 to set the following deadlines in the case before it goes to trial: April 2009 for the defense to present reasons why Jacques should not face the death penalty; May 2009 for prosecutors to make a recommendation to the Justice Department; August 2009 for a meeting between the defense and the committee that reviews death penalty cases; October 2009 for the prosecutors to file intent to seek the death penalty with the court.
The accused killer's defense attorneys state that the evidence discovery process is still under way as prosecutors have made available to them "thousands of pages of documents, including statements by the defendant, hundreds of e-mails, the results of some scientific testing, the results of several search warrants, and other documents."
But defense attorneys need more time to prepare a mitigation defense – one that would either convince the Justice Department or a jury not to seek the death penalty against Jacques, they wrote.
"The principle that 'death is different' is not simply the dramatic recitation of a self-evident truth; rather, it forms the bedrock of a death-penalty jurisprudence that is marked and defined by a justly deserved increased level of judicial attention to every step of the process through which the irrevocable sanction of death is sought and carried out," the attorneys wrote.
But Anderson responded in a court filing late last week that the process to determine if the death penalty will be sought provides several opportunities for the defense to present their case. He suggests setting an April 2009 deadline for the Justice Department to file intent to seek the death penalty with the court.
"Any court-imposed requirement that defendants be given the opportunity to present mitigating evidence before the Attorney General may proceed with his determination – or controlling the timing of any such presentation – would constitute a serious infringement of the Attorney General's constitutionally-deprived, and largely unfettered, prosecutorial discretion," he wrote.
Contact Daniel Barlow at Daniel.Barlow@timesargus.com.MORE IN Central Vermont
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