News hard to avoid in tightly knit Vermont
By Brent Curtis
Herald Staff | May 14,2008
It was the first juror of the day who put Vermont's small world into perspective.
Sitting alone in the jury box, a matronly looking woman with glasses on her head and a smile on her face, juror No. 1 told the court she has had to take a number of precautions since she found out she was a prospective juror for the trial of a man accused of raping and killing a University of Vermont student.
She told David Sleigh, the attorney assigned to defend 37-year-old Brian Rooney, that her husband screened the morning paper every day to steer her clear of stories and headlines that could taint her objectivity as a juror in the case.
Asked how she avoided all of the television news coverage or gossip surrounding the case, the potential juror said she took about the only step guaranteed to ward off details of the high-profile case.
"If I see it on the news, I put my hands over my ears and say, 'La, la, la, la, la,'" she said.
The question and answer wouldn't be surprising if it were posed to a resident in Burlington, the epicenter of the investigation and a community in many ways still in mourning 1-1/2 years after the slaying of 21-year-old Michelle Gardner-Quinn.
But coming from a Rutland juror in Rutland District Court — where the case is being tried after Judge Michael Kupersmith decided a change of venue was in order since extensive media coverage in Chittenden County made a fair trial impossible — juror No. 1's answers summed up how little the 62-mile trip south from Burlington made in terms of juror exposure to the case.
And juror No. 1 wasn't the exception.
Several other prospective jurors who appeared in court on Tuesday during jury drawings for the trial said they have either been following the case all along or getting a quick education on it by checking out any of a number of media sources.
Modern Vermont is a little village on a shrinking globe.
With only a handful of major newspapers and broadcast media, many Vermonters are already getting their news from a common source.
Add the Internet into the mix and anyone can become an instant expert on the case.
Typing Gardner-Quinn's name into an online search engine turns up newspaper stories, a memorial page and even a Wikipedia listing. Rooney, too, has been given a page on the vast, user-edited, online encyclopedia.
With so much information available everywhere about the case the question arises, "What makes a Rutland County juror different from a Chittenden County juror?"
The answer, according to Vermont Law School Professor Cheryl Hanna, is, "Not much."
"It's hard to escape the local media in Vermont because there are only a few news carriers and once a juror realizes they could be on a case they can go online and read not only newspapers, but blogs and other opinion sites," said Hanna, herself a former prosecutor.
"Is the outcome likely to be any different in Rutland than in Chittenden? I suspect not," she added.
That said, Hanna said Kupersmith's decision to grant the change of venue was prudent if not practical since it reduced future legal challenges.
"The bottom line is you don't want a trial reversal," she said.
And, of course, while Rutland residents might know just as much about the case's details as their northern neighbors, the emotional scars in the Burlington community are absent in Rutland.
That point was reiterated by a Rutland Town woman loading groceries into her car outside Price Chopper on Thursday.
"If it had been a student from the College of St. Joseph I think it would be different," said the woman, who declined to give her name. "I can only imagine what it must be like up there. There's not a person in Burlington with no connection to UVM."
There's no arguing Gardner-Quinn's slaying didn't impact Rutlanders in the way that brutal murders of the past, such as the killing of 53-year-old North Clarendon resident Tressa "Terry" King, whose abduction and eventual murder galvanized Rutland eight years ago.
But even so, there were more than a few county residents who said it was hard to maintain objectivity on the case based on what they've read or heard.
"He looks guilty based on what I've read, but that's why you go to trial," said Rutland Town resident George Simonsen.
Sandy Woods, 55, of Clarendon, was even more blunt.
"I'm prejudiced against him," said the mother and grandmother. "I hope if he's convicted, he gets put in jail for a long time if not the death penalty."
Contact Brent Curtis at firstname.lastname@example.org.