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Editorial: Plea Deal for Jacques Was the Right Call, Although a Difficult One

It is entirely understandable that many members of the Randolph-area community would react with outrage to the news late last week that accused murderer Michael Jacques will be allowed to plead guilty and serve a sentence of life without parole, while waiving his right to appeal.

If in fact the death penalty is ever justified, the moral depravity of the crime with which Jacques is charged — the kidnapping, rape and murder of his 12-year-old niece, Brooke Bennett, in 2008 — would surely call for its imposition in this case.

And, while it was not universal, that was the tenor of reaction staff writer Mark Davis encountered when he visited Randolph after the U.S. Justice Department announced its decision on Friday.

“I think he should get the death penalty for what he did,” Duane Litchfield told Davis, in comments that were representative. “It was quite an ordeal to put the family through. Why should he get to sit in prison? He took the rest of her life. Kind of a dirty way for him to get out of it. Yeah, it will be closure, but it isn’t really, because (the family) knows he’s sitting there, and we’re supporting him for the rest of his life. I feel they should string him up.”

As powerful as those sentiments are, we’re convinced the prosecutors made the right call, in difficult circumstances, to drop their pursuit of the death penalty. This is because the plea deal will spare a primary witness from having to testify, which is surely the humane thing to do. Law enforcement authorities have said that the witness, a girl who was 14 at the time of the murder, had been sexually abused over a long period by Jacques and was coerced by him to help lure Brooke Bennett, of Braintree, Vt., to his home on East Bethel Road in Randolph, where he drugged and raped her before suffocating her with a plastic bag and burying her in a shallow grave near his home.

The prospect of having to relive those events on the witness stand would be unendurable to most people, let alone someone as young as the prospective witness who, according to a pastor in town, has been able to forge a new life for herself despite all that she endured. What’s not clear is why it took prosecutors five years to reach the conclusion they did.

Moreover, the concerns expressed by several residents about the costs of keeping Jacques incarcerated for life are not necessarily valid. It is fairly well established that by the time all avenues of appeal are exhausted, the costs of putting an inmate to death far exceed those of keeping him in prison. In fact, the only thing swift and sure about the death penalty is that appeals are sure to drag on for years and the bills will swiftly mount.

Finally, there is a legal reason why a plea deal makes sense to us. Vermont has no death penalty, and Jacques faced a capital charge — kidnapping with death resulting — only because the federal government asserted jurisdiction even though the crime took place entirely in Vermont. The basis of this charge is a section of the Adam Walsh Act that allows federal charges to be filed in kidnapping cases where the telephone or Internet were used in the commission of the crime. We are by no means sure that this amounts to a sound exercise of federal power under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.

It would be comforting to think that Jacques will spent every moment of the rest of his life suffering agonies of conscience for the acts he is accused of. Death penalty opponents, among whom we count ourselves, believe this to be true. Even though no one has the ability to read the mind of another, it does seem possible that this would be the case — a possibility that would be foreshortened by putting him to death.