Jury search proves to be trying on Nantucket

Murder trial judge faces a small pool

By Jenna Russell
Globe Staff / June 7, 2007

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NANTUCKET -- The first murder trial in 23 years on this remote resort island opened this week with a host of logistical challenges: how to transport the defendant across Nantucket Sound to court each day from his jail cell on Cape Cod and how to accommodate a crush of media representatives in a snug courtroom that doubles as the meeting space for the Board of Selectmen.

But a thornier problem emerged in the first three days of court proceedings in the case against Thomas Toolan III, the New York man accused of stabbing Elizabeth Lochtefeld to death in her Nantucket home almost three years ago: how to round up a dozen people with no connection to the case and with little knowledge of it to fill the jury box on an island of just 10,000 year-round residents.

By yesterday afternoon, 175 potential jurors had filed into the town office building where the court is housed, and more than two-thirds of them had been dismissed by Judge Richard F. Connon. Many of those sent home told the judge they were familiar with the details of the case or friendly with the victim's family.

Fewer than 50 candidates for the jury remain. When they return to court today, lawyers will have a chance to question them and possibly ask for some to be dismissed, leaving open the question of whether a 12-member jury and four alternates will be successfully impaneled.

Kevin Reddington, the Brockton defense lawyer representing Toolan, has argued for a change of venue for months. The judge has held off ruling on his request, but is expected to do so today.

Reddington said yesterday that he expects the judge to move ahead with the trial on Nantucket. If that happens, he said, he has prepared an appeal of the judge's decision that would ask the Supreme Judicial Court to step in and force a relocation.

"I don't suggest that people wouldn't try to be fair, but it's too much to ask of human beings who live on this island to hear this case, acquit this defendant, and go back to their jobs and friends," Reddington said.

Lochtefeld's brutal killing on Oct. 25, 2004, captured national attention because of its wealthy, isolated setting and the wrenching details of the story that suggest the tragedy might have been averted.

Lochtefeld, 44, a successful New York businesswoman and longtime summer visitor to Nantucket, had recently moved to the island, where her parents live. Fearing for her safety after she broke off a relationship with Toolan in New York, Lochtefeld inquired at the police station about a restraining order , prosecutors say. When Toolan tried to travel to Nantucket, he was kept off one flight to the island because he was carrying a knife.

After taking a later flight and buying a knife on the island, prosecutors say, Toolan asked neighbors about Lochtefeld's whereabouts. Alarmed, they alerted her family, who called police, but it was too late. Her body was found on the floor of her cottage.

Toolan's lawyer has said he plans to use an insanity defense and will try to prove his client is not criminally responsible for Lochtefeld's death because his mental capacity was diminished by drugs and alcohol.

On Nantucket, residents acknowledge that the island's population has grown since the last murder trial here, in 1984, when local fisherman Robert Aguiar was convicted of killing another fisherman in a fight and was sentenced to life in prison. But they said that the place remains close-knit, that a web of relationships connects many families.

Some islanders said the trial belongs on Nantucket.

"It seems like it happened here, and we ought to be able to settle it here," island native Jack Gardner said as a chilly fog rolled up Main Street's cobblestones Tuesday night. "There are so many new people around now; they should be able to find a jury."

At the Downyflake restaurant off the Milestone Rotary, where locals flock for homemade doughnuts, owner Mark Hogan said the island is full of fair-minded people who could put aside their familiarity with the case.

"Who didn't hear about it?" he said. "You have to weigh the facts, and I think a lot of people here would be able to do that."

Inside the courthouse, where visitors pass through a brand-new metal detector, jury selection moved slowly. The judge conducted most of his questioning in his private chambers. He provided a list of questions, which included queries about personal or family experience with domestic violence and psychiatric illness.

At times, the only people waiting in the warm, quiet courtroom, besides a row of reporters in the back, were Lochtefeld's parents, John and Judy, who sat with their children between them, and, across the aisle, Toolan's parents, seated side by side.

Outside, the streets around the town offices buzzed with the awakening of the summer season. Painters scraped the porch of an inn across the street while landscapers trimmed bushes nearby.

Bent over in a tidy flower garden, Carrie Leisher kept working as she reflected on the island's desire to hold onto the trial.

"People are concerned about the outcome," she said. "I think people think he's more likely to be convicted here."