MONTPELIER -- A convicted sex offender charged with luring his 12-year-old niece to his home with the promise of a pool party before molesting and strangling her is expected to plead guilty Tuesday, avoiding a federal death penalty trial that experts say aren’t as common as they used to be.
Federal prosecutors haven’t said what prompted U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to agree to the deal that would have Michael Jacques plead guilty to charges stemming from the 2008 death of Brooke Bennett in exchange for a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Prosecutors said only that they didn’t want a young witness to have to recount the details of the case in court.
Vermont doesn’t have the death penalty, but Jacques, of Randolph, could have been tried and sentenced to death through the federal court system.
Richard Dieter, a national death penalty expert, said Friday that the U.S. Justice Department isn’t pursing the death penalty with the vigor it once did.
"We’ve seen a few of these cases lately that plea bargains are being accepted," said Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center.
As an example, Dieter cited the case of a Rhode Island man at the center of a capital punishment tug of war between the state and federal governments. Last month, Jason Pleau changed his plea to guilty to avoid the death penalty for his role in the 2010 robbery and killing of a gas station manager.
Dieter said there are about 60 federal inmates nationwide facing execution, but it’s been 10 years since the federal government last executed an inmate.
Jacques, 47, has pleaded not guilty to a charge of kidnapping with death resulting and several counts of child pornography. Prosecutors say Jacques used a 14-year-old girl he had been sexually abusing since she was 9 to lure Brooke to his home for a pool party. They say Jacques drugged, sexually assaulted and killed Brooke. Her body was found buried in a shallow grave near Jacques’ home after a weeklong search.
Jury selection for Jacques’ death penalty trial had been scheduled to begin after Labor Day.
Brooke’s parents, Jim Bennett and Cassandra Adams, told a Vermont television station that they were disappointed in the outcome.
"He will never endure the pain that myself and her father and everybody involved has been through, so it’s really hard to see the justice of it," Adams told WCAX-TV.
Dieter said President Barack Obama’s administration isn’t as pro-death penalty as that of President George W. Bush.
Holder is personally against the death penalty, but he will apply it. Obama supports the death penalty, but as a state senator in Illinois he worked for death penalty reform, Dieter said.
"I don’t think they’re as adamant, especially in a state that doesn’t have the death penalty. I think there was an effort in the Bush administration to spread out the federal death penalty cases. They would be pursued in non-death penalty states," Dieter said.
In 2005, in Vermont’s first death penalty trial in nearly half a century, Donald Fell was sentenced to death for the 2000 abduction and killing of Rutland supermarket worker Terry King.
"A memo now from the attorney general has said there has to be some national concerns or multistate activities" to pursue the death penalty, Dieter said. "Just because a state on its own doesn’t have the death penalty is not a reason to go in and up the punishment."