|Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell (center), answered questions during a news conference Thursday in Burlington. (ALDEN PELLETT/ASSOCIATED PRESS)|
MONTPELIER - It's been more than 50 years since Vermont sentenced anyone to death and 54 years since its last execution, but the man charged with abducting 12-year-old Brooke Bennett could become the second Vermonter to end up on federal death row in recent years.
Even though police haven't released a cause of death for Brooke or even said she was murdered, federal prosecutors have said they might seek the death penalty against Michael Jacques, 42, of Randolph, the man charged with kidnapping her.
Vermont Law School professor Michael Mello, an expert on the death penalty, said it could be the first time federal prosecutors seek the death penalty using changes to federal law included in the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006.
"This is a big deal," Mello said. "What the Adam Walsh amendment was intended to do, in effect, is to make virtually any kidnapping with death resulting a federal capital offense."
Federal prosecutors charge that Jacques, Brooke's uncle, used fictitious e-mail identities to help orchestrate the June 25 abduction of the girl. After dropping Brooke off at a Randolph convenience store, Jacques and a 14-year-old witness identified as Juvenile 1 picked her up again and took Brooke back to Jacques' home.
Juvenile 1 told police she felt Brooke was going to be initiated into a "program for sex." The girl said the last time she saw Brooke, Brooke was going upstairs with Jacques. Brooke's body was found July 2 buried in a shallow grave about a mile from Jacques' home.
Prosecutors have suggested no motive for the alleged kidnapping. Jacques has not yet appeared in federal court to enter a plea in the case.
State prosecutors have turned the case over to the US attorney's office. The investigation into Brooke's death isn't complete, and it will be months before a decision is made on whether to seek the death penalty against Jacques.
Vermont hasn't executed a prisoner since 1954 and the last death sentence came in 1957, although the sentence was commuted and the inmate later released.
In effect, the Legislature outlawed the death penalty in 1965 although it technically remained a part of state law until 1987. But the state's death penalty law was invalidated in 1972 by the US Supreme Court decision that commuted all death sentences in the country at that time.
The last time the Vermont Legislature gave the death penalty serious consideration was in 1987, said state Senator Vince Illuzzi, a Republican from Essex-Orleans who introduced the legislation. Instead, the Legislature enacted the aggravated murder law, which carries with it a mandatory sentence of life without parole.
Illuzzi said he felt the state's lack of a death penalty made Vermont's US attorney more likely to get involved in cases such as Brooke's death.
"It fills what some might consider to be a void in the law," Illuzzi said.
In two cases over the last decade, the office of Vermont's US attorney has prosecuted death penalty cases.
In the first case, from 1998, an Ohio man faced the death penalty for sending a bomb via a delivery service that killed a Fair Haven teenager. But Chris Dean, 45, agreed to serve a sentence of life without parole in exchange for the government's dropping the death sentence.
In 2005, a jury in federal court in Burlington sentenced Donald Fell to death for the 2000 carjacking murder of Terry King, 53, of North Clarendon, who was kidnapped when she arrived at a Rutland supermarket early one morning in November 2000 and then beaten to death in New York state.
In the King case, Vermont's US attorney didn't want to seek the death penalty but was ordered to do so by then-US Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Just last week, while the search for Brooke was intensifying, the 2d US Circuit Court of Appeals in New York upheld Fell's death sentence. Fell, 28, is now housed on death row in Terre Haute, Ind.
In 2006, Congress passed, and President Bush signed, the Adam Walsh Act. It is named for 6-year-old boy who was abducted from a Florida shopping mall in 1981 and later died.