Lawyers added to defense team in kidnapping of girl

Suspect could face death penalty in Vermont case

Michael Jacques is accused of taking his niece, who was killed. Michael Jacques is accused of taking his niece, who was killed.
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Associated Press / August 13, 2008

MONTPELIER - Two lawyers with extensive experience in capital cases have joined the defense team of Michael Jacques in anticipation that prosecutors will seek the death penalty against the convicted sex offender accused of kidnapping 12-year-old Brooke Bennett.

At the request of public defender Michael Desautels, US District Judge William Sessions III on Monday appointed Jean deSales Barrett and David Ruhnke of Montclair, N.J., to help Desautels.

Jacques, 42, the girl's uncle, is scheduled to appear in court today for a hearing in which a judge will decide whether there is probable cause to believe he committed the kidnapping.

Bennett disappeared June 25 and was found dead a week later. The cause of death has yet to be released.

Depending on how she died, prosecutors said, Jacques could face the death penalty under the federal kidnapping law.

US Attorney Tom Anderson said the 2006 Adam Walsh law - named for another abducted child - allows federal prosecution of such crimes when they are facilitated by the Internet.

Prosecutors say Jacques used the girl's MySpace page and fictitious e-mail identities to orchestrate her abduction.

The decision about whether to seek the death penalty is months away, Anderson said yesterday. It will be decided after the case is presented to a grand jury and an indictment is made.

"Ultimately, that decision is made by the attorney general of the United States," he said.

Desautels, Jacques's lawyer, declined to comment on the appointment of Ruhnke and Barrett.

The husband-and-wife team have been involved in about 20 cases since the early 1980s, two of which resulted in death orders, Ruhnke said.

One was set aside and the other was appealed, he said. They've also had 20 or 30 cases resolved without a trial, he said.

"The reason we've been appointed in this case is it carries a potential death sentence. It doesn't mean it's going to be a death penalty case. One of our functions will be to try to marshal reasons to the government why the death penalty shouldn't become an issue," said Ruhnke.

He won't attend today's hearing, but Barrett will, he said.

Cheryl Hanna, Vermont Law School professor, said the addition of the two lawyers makes sense.

"The reason I'm sure the federal defenders appointed attorneys with death penalty expertise is that they believe it's likely that the feds will in fact seek the death penalty in the case when charges are ultimately filed," she said. "It's really important that the criminal defendants have attorneys with competence in death penalty cases because they are very difficult; they encompass a whole range of issues that are not present in cases in which the death penalty is not at issue."

If the Justice Department seeks the death penalty, it would be the third such case in the last decade in Vermont, which does not have a state death penalty.

Charges stemming from a 1998 fatal bombing in Fair Haven resulted in a guilty plea in exchange for a sentence of life without parole.

In 2005, a jury 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 for work and then beaten to death in New York State.

Vermont's US attorney at the time did not want to seek the death penalty in the case but was ordered to do so by John Ashcroft, then the US attorney general. It was Vermont's first death sentence in almost 50 years.

Fell, 28, is on death row in Terre Haute, Ind.

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