• Lurching toward justice
    May 24,2014

    The criminal justice system has dealt with Michael Jacques, and now he will languish in obscurity in a prison somewhere for the rest of his life. The pain his murderous, abusive behavior caused will never be forgotten by those whom he injured, though it is likely that, over the decades, the sordid little man himself will fade from the memory of most of us.

    His history is a reminder of how difficult it is to thwart the devious intentions of sexual predators. When Jacques murdered his niece, Brooke Bennett, in 2008, it was the culmination of a history of abuse, lies, prison, treatment, probation, more lies and abuse. People made wrong judgments about Jacques, and his crimes continued.

    Buster Olney, an ESPN sportswriter who grew up in Randolph, is writing a book about his childhood friendship with Jacques and the murder of Bennett. In an interview with Vermont Public Radio, he said that when he heard the news of the crime, he “knew” that Jacques was somehow involved. Olney had moved on and no longer maintained a friendship with Jacques, but he had become aware back when Jacques was a teenager of Jacques’s tendency toward pedophilia.

    Experience has shown that suspicion and degrees of knowledge do not serve as a barrier against future crimes. Even incarceration and treatment are no sure safeguard. The fundamental difficulty is buried in the dark recesses of the human psyche, and we cannot lock up everyone about whom we are suspicious. Even convicted offenders cannot be held in jail forever — unless, like Jacques, they cross the ultimate line.

    The Jacques case underscores the importance of vigilance in the protection of children and openness about abuse. The Catholic Church for generations practiced the opposite of openness, creating a culture that allowed abuse to flourish. That is changing.

    It has been six years since the Bennett murder, and finally with the sentencing earlier this week, the Jacques case is over. It was possible because of a plea deal between Jacques and the federal prosecutors who had the option of seeking the death penalty for him. In exchange for a guilty plea that made a trial unnecessary, they agreed not to seek the death penalty.

    The outcome in the Jacques stands in contrast to the course of the case against Donald Fell, who was convicted in 2005 in federal court of the abduction and murder of Terry King of North Clarendon. That crime occurred in 2000, but its outcome is still not resolved.

    Prosecutors in the Fell case decided to seek the death penalty, raising the stakes and ensuring that every avenue of appeal and delay would be exploited. Even nine years after Fell was sentenced to death, his lawyers have cast doubt on the entire process by lodging claims of jury misconduct that U.S. District Judge William Sessions has had to consider. After all this time, because of mistakes made by jurors, it is possible that Fell’s conviction could be thrown out entirely, requiring a new trial.

    The protracted process has been a terrible ordeal for King’s family, and a new trial would prolong the ordeal. If jury misconduct is found, however, it may be necessary to send a message to jurors everywhere about proper and improper conduct. The entire painful process might have been avoided if capital punishment was not part of the equation.

    There is no closure on the pain of victims, but there has been closure on the case of Michael Jacques. The same cannot be said about the case of Donald Fell, at least so far.

    Prosecutors seek the death penalty for certain crimes because they believe that only death is sufficient to guarantee justice. And yet the process of imposing capital punishment itself is riddled with injustices, and the outcome is seldom satisfactory even to the loved ones of victims.

    Jacques was certainly a candidate for capital punishment, but if the government had sought that outcome, the process would have prolonged the pain of his trial far beyond today.

    Now he is gone — sentenced to life, plus 70 years. Vermont can finally say good riddance.

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