MONTPELIER – The U.S. Department of Justice announced Tuesday that it would seek the death penalty for Michael Jacques, the man accused of killing 12-year-old Brooke Bennett last summer.
Federal officials said Tuesday that Jacques' alleged rape and killing of his young niece was "especially heinous, cruel [and] depraved" and that the 43-year-old suspect has shown no remorse for the crime he is accused of.
According to police, Jacques raped and then killed Bennett after luring the girl, with the assistance of another young juvenile, to his home on June 25, 2008, under the pretense that she would be attending a pool party with kids her age.
"We're very, very pleased," said Mary Larson, a close friend of Bennett's family. "There are a lot of people in Randolph who are going to be shocked tonight, but also very happy when they hear this news."
Bennett's initial disappearance – which launched Vermont's first-ever Amber Alert – and the later revelation that the 12-year-old Braintree girl was slain, stunned the small town last summer where the crme took place and led to new sex offender legislation at the state level.
But the criminal case against Jacques, who was arrested days after Bennett's disappearance, has moved slowly as officials with the U.S. Department of Justice, who are prosecuting the case, tried to decide whether or not to seek the strongest penalty – death – against Jacques.
Tristram Coffin, the United States attorney for Vermont, said Tuesday afternoon that he could not comment about the announcement and referred questions to the Justice Department's court filing that day.
The Justice Department filed a seven-page memo with the court Tuesday outlining its support for seeking the death penalty. Prosecutors list 17 aggravating factors in support of the sentence they will seek, ranging from the "substantial planning and premeditation" to Jacques' alleged attempts to cover up the crime.
These aggravating factors will be used by prosecutors if the case goes to trial to convince a jury that Jacques should be put to death for his alleged crimes. The jury would weigh these factors against the defenses' mitigating factors to determine if Jacques should face that sanction.
Justice Department documents also reveal other allegations of past sexual abuses with other minors that Jacques is accused of – including alleged crimes that were previously not revealed to the public.
According to these documents, Jacques sexually abused and raped a juvenile between the years 1977 and 1984. He also allegedly raped another girl, who was either 13 or 14 years old at the time, between 1980 and 1982.
In 1987, Jacques raped another girl, a 13-year-old from Barre, according to the court documents, along with "engaging in sexually inappropriate conduct with other girls living in Barre, Vt. at the time."
He also allegedly raped another person – court documents don't detail a gender or age – between 1990 and 1992. Finally, Jacques was also accused of kidnapping, raping and threatening to kill an 18-year-old in early spring 1992. He went to prison for four years for that crime.
The documents also note that Jacques underwent sex offender treatment while in prison, yet "continued to engage in manipulative, deceitful and violent criminal behavior." It also states that between 2003 and 2006, Jacques "manipulated and deceived" Vermont's criminal justice system "into believing that … he had been rehabilitated."
Last year, once it become apparent that prosecutors were considering the death penalty, Jacques hired two New Jersey attorneys with years of experience in similar cases to help defend him.
Jean deSales Barrett and David Ruhnke of Montclair, N.J., are a husband and wife team who have defended suspects in nearly two dozen trials with the death penalty attached since the 1980s. Only two of those cases resulted in the accused being sentenced to death.
Barrett and Ruhnke released a statement to the media Tuesday, which suggested that they were seeking a plea agreement in the case before this decision was made.
"We are disappointed in the (U.S) Attorney General's decision," the statement read. "We had hoped to resolve this case without a trial, but today's announcement makes that impossible."
Vermont does not have the death penalty, but Jacques is being charged under federal law because he allegedly used the Internet to both plan for and cover up the crime, according to police. Because of that, the crime is considered to have crossed state borders, opening it up for federal prosecution.
This would be the third death penalty case in Vermont since the late 1990s. A 1998 case involving a fatal bombing in Fair Haven had a death sentence attached, but the defendant later pleaded down for a life sentence in prison.
In 2005, Donald Fell was sentenced to death for the 2000 carjacking murder of a North Clarendon woman, who was kidnapped by Fell in Rutland and later killed in New York State. He now sits on death row.
Cheryl Hanna, a professor at the Vermont Law School, said the announcement was interesting because it is the first from the new Obama administration on the use of the death penalty in states that do not have one.
"I suspect that we will see some kind of outcry from death penalty opponents over this decision, as we did with the Fell case," she said.
Hanna said it may well be that Jacques' defense questions the constitutionality of the law allowing the federal government to prosecute. In the Fell case, the crime clearly crossed state borders, but here, Hanna explained, prosecutors are relying on a new law allowing them to step in because the crime allegedly involves the Internet.
"I would not be surprised if the defense questions the law itself here," she said.
According to court documents, Jacques concocted a ruse he called the Breckenridge program, a powerful group that he told young girls would be capable of killing them and their family if they did not engage in sexual relations with him. Police have said there is no such thing as Breckenridge.
Jacques allegedly used another young girl, whom he had also been sexually abusing, to lure Bennett to his home. Police said the man drugged, raped and then killed Bennett and later planted fake evidence to make it appear that she had run away with a boyfriend she met on the Internet social site MySpace.
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