Tuesday August 13, 2013

MIKE FAHER

Reformer Staff

BRATTLEBORO -- Attorneys are making final preparations for a three-week murder trial for a former nursing assistant charged in the 2009 death of a Thompson House resident.

Jodi LaClaire, of Bennington, N.H., is scheduled to stand trial next month in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division in connection with the insulin-related death of 83-year-old Nita Lowery.

Before haggling over details of jury selection and other issues, prosecutors disclosed on Wednesday that they won’t be introducing evidence alleging that LaClaire also had caused the hospitalization of a different Thompson House resident that same year.

"So the evidence that was going to be offered concerning another person who was allegedly injected with insulin similar to what’s alleged here, that evidence is no longer going to be put forth by the state, no matter what?" Judge David Suntag asked.

"Correct," replied Ultan Doyle, a Vermont assistant attorney general. Afterward, Doyle would not say why the attorney general’s office has decided to not tell a jury about that other incident, which allegedly had happened just a few weeks before Lowery died.

LaClaire never had been charged in the prior incident, and the alleged victim recovered.

But LaClaire is accused of second-degree murder in Lowery’s death in March 2009. Investigators have said she was the only licensed nursing assistant assigned to Lowery’s floor for an overnight shift.

Lowery was discovered "unconscious and slumped in her wheelchair" just after 7 a.m. the next morning. She was declared brain dead when she arrived at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital.

A medic who had responded to Thompson House noted that Lowery had extremely low blood sugar, though doctors said she did not have a history of diabetes and had not been taking medication for such a condition.

Though LaClaire has claimed that Lowery had been complaining of a headache and was unsteady, experts have said there was "no physiological explanation" for Lowery’s condition other than the introduction of insulin into her body.

Authorities have said LaClaire is a diabetic who uses injectable insulin.

LaClaire also was accused of using Lowery’s USAA credit card to withdraw money before and after her death. Investigators have said Lowery’s desktop computer was used to access the USAA website the morning she died, and there allegedly were calls made to USAA from Lowery’s personal telephone around the same time.

On Wednesday, Doyle told the judge that prosecutors will not attempt to tie LaClaire to additional ATM withdrawals with which she has not already been charged.

"To the extent that there would be any evidence with respect to uncharged conduct related to the ATM withdrawals, there would just be general testimony that the card was used on these occasions," Doyle said.

Doyle and Assistant Attorney General Matthew Levine appeared in court Wednesday along with defense attorneys Richard Ammons and Dan Sedon. LaClaire was ushered into the courtroom wearing blue prison garb and orange, laceless sneakers; she was shackled at the arms and ankles.

The attorneys and Suntag spent much of the proceeding laying the groundwork for jury selection, which is scheduled to begin Monday, Sept. 9. Sixteen jurors, including four alternates, will be selected.

"We pick, and we start the trial as soon as we have a jury," Suntag said.

The judge detailed strict rules for jury selection, warning attorneys to not advise potential jurors on the law and to not get into the facts of the case.

The trial currently is scheduled to last through Friday, Sept. 27. Sedon said he expects jurors to hear "a factually complex case -- nine medical experts from three countries, four computer-forensics experts."

Sedon, who said one defense witness is traveling from London, said he values a juror’s "ability to render a verdict based upon the evidence and the law alone, without an emotional or personal interference."

Prior to the actual jury-selection process, Suntag said he could provide only a "broad outline" for how attorneys can quiz jury candidates about processing potentially conflicting expert testimony.

"Your concern here is going to be whether they’re going to actually be able to listen to the experts and figure out for themselves which one -- if any -- they wish to rely upon," Suntag said. "That’s the question."