Jury acquits LaClaire in murder trial
Staff Writer | September 28,2013
BRATTLEBORO — Former nurse’s aide Jodi LaClaire was acquitted of murdering an elderly patient Friday, but in a split verdict a Windham County jury found her guilty of stealing Nita Lowery’s credit card to get $3,000 in cash advances.
The jury of eight women and four men deliberated for five hours starting at midafternoon Friday and announced it had reached a verdict at about 7:30 p.m.
The first verdicts to be read were the seven financial-exploitation counts, and the jury forewoman and the rest of the jury told Judge David Suntag their guilty verdicts were unanimous.
But with count eight — second-degree murder for causing the death of the 83-year-old Lowery by injecting her with insulin — the verdict was “not guilty.” For count nine, elder abuse, the verdict was again “not guilty.”
LaClaire, 39, who has showed little emotion during the three-week trial, cried after the jury had left the courtroom.
Her attorneys, Daniel Sedon of Chelsea and Richard Ammons of Brattleboro, said they will file post-conviction motions in 10 days to challenge the financial convictions and seek her release from prison pending sentencing.
“She’s been through a tremendous ordeal,” Ammons told reporters after the verdict.
Lowery’s two children, Gail LaHaise of Walpole, N.H., and John A. Lowery III of Brattleboro, who both came back to the courtroom to hear the verdict, appeared stunned after the jury’s decision.
LaHaise, who had attended most of the trial, spoke after meeting in private with the prosecution team lead by Assistant Attorney General Matthew Levine.
“I’m grateful, I’m grateful,” she said with tears in her eyes, thanking reporters for their coverage of the trial.
“I’m grateful for my family,” she said. “I’m grateful for the state of Vermont.”
Her brother John said he wasn’t surprised at the verdict.
“Disappointed? Not for me, because everyone knows,” he said.
Levine declined to comment, noting the case was still pending with the 10-day deadline for motions.
The state had put considerable time, effort and money into prosecuting the case, which had taken three years to investigate both the financial exploitation charges and eventually, armed with evidence from a Montreal researcher in neuropathology, the murder charge.
Sedon, the lead defense attorney, said there were “significant issues” that would be raised on appeal concerning the conviction on the financial exploitation charges.
“It was not a long deliberation,” said Sedon, saying it was clear to the jurors “the state hadn’t proven murder.”
The jury, after listening to three weeks of evidence from 38 witnesses, including a lot of medical expert testimony, only took five hours to decide the case, he noted.
Sedon said he thought the jury first took up the murder count, had a vote, and then moved on to the financial-exploitation counts.
“A life sentence was on the table,” he said.
The jury heard closing arguments in the three-week trial Friday. Assistant Attorney General Ultan Doyle told the jury that LaClaire had a clear motive to murder Lowery: She was in financial straits and wanted access to Lowery’s credit card, the prosecutor said.
Sedon reminded the jury that Lowery’s death in 2009 had never been ruled a homicide by the Vermont medical examiner’s office because there wasn’t conclusive evidence that Lowery had been murdered. On her death certificate, the manner of death is still listed as “undetermined.”
“We’re not here to play ‘Clue,’” Sedon told the jury. “We’re not here to feel sorry for the state.”
Sedon pointed repeatedly to the length of the police investigation into Lowery’s death — about three years — before murder charges were filed, claiming police had enough evidence to charge LaClaire with the financial charges within 60 days of Lowery’s death. The financial exploitation charges were filed a year before the murder charge, in 2011.
The state’s case was based on speculation, Sedon said, rather than hard evidence.
“A lot relies on coincidence,” he said, questioning why police never interviewed any of Lowery’s fellow residents at Thompson House.
“That’s a failure of the evidence,” he said.
Lowery, who had lived at Thompson House for about eight years before she died April 1, 2009, was found unresponsive in her private room on the morning of March 23, 2009.
Medical testing later determined she had suffered severe brain injury, and a three-year investigation determined she died of hypoglycemia, or extremely low blood sugar, brought on by a large dose of insulin.
LaClaire was charged with murder in January 2012, after an extensive investigation by the Vermont attorney general’s office, along with the Brattleboro Police.
The Lowery family had written to then-Gov. James Douglas seeking assistance in the case.
Doyle, in his two-hour closing arguments to the jury, emphasized the evidence supporting the financial exploitation charges and an ATM photo.
He said LaClaire had given Lowery a shot of insulin to render her unconscious to gain access to her credit card. Doyle said LaClaire told her supervisor at Thompson House shortly after Lowery’s collapse into a coma that she had been in Lowery’s room between 6 a.m. and 6:30 a.m., the same time that someone accessed Lowery’s credit card account to establish a PIN number that would allow for cash withdrawals from the credit card.
But Sedon said the state was lacking in key evidence to prove that LaClaire had access to insulin and had given Lowery a shot. As he had during the trial, he raised issues about Lowery’s grandson, John, and his girlfriend Lynn Corson, and noted they had both been under suspicion by police before they settled on LaClaire.