Crime and Justice

Supreme Court: Covid-19 trial delay not reason to free man jailed for two years

Vermont Supreme Court
The Vermont Supreme Court hears arguments in a 2019 case. Photo by Paul Heintz, used with permission.

All criminal trials in Vermont have been canceled for the past few months because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and none are expected until at least next year. However, that alone is not a reason to release a Windsor County man who has spent more than two years in jail awaiting trial on sex charges, the Vermont Supreme Court has ruled.

Lawrence Labrecque, 41, has been held without bail on charges of sexual assault on a minor since he was arraigned in Windsor County criminal court on July 23, 2018.

The case has been stuck in the court system ever since, with several delays caused by, among other things, a change in lawyers. Finally, the case was set for trial in April. But that was put off when the Supreme Court declared a judicial emergency in late March because of the coronavirus, and it hasn’t been reset.

That emergency order cited the risk that Covid-19 could spread if jury pools and panels gathered in courtrooms. It’s not clear when jury trials in criminal cases will be allowed to resume.

A three-member panel of the Vermont Supreme Court issued a ruling Friday, denying Labreque to be freed until trial.

Labreque, through his attorney, contended that being jailed without bail until an uncertain trial date is “punitive incarceration” that violates his rights to due process. 

The delay in Labreque’s trial, the ruling said, “is not the result of malfeasance or neglect. Rather, it is a function of the government’s efforts to respond to a novel health crisis by establishing procedures which would serve to mitigate the resulting health risk to those who must gather in close physical proximity in order to conduct such a trial — including defendant himself.”

Windsor County State’s Attorney Ward Goodenough, whose office is prosecuting the case, said Friday he was not surprised by the ruling.

The case has been delayed by other factors, in addition to the virus, he said, and as for the delay because of the virus, the justices “don’t believe there is a due process violation as a result.”   

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The next step, he added, is to get a trial scheduled.

“The case is in the trial queue for our county and certainly one of the ones closest to the top of list for trials when court gives us the green light to do trials again,” he said. 

Sean Milligan, an attorney for LaBrecque, could not be reached Friday for comment.

Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio said that, while his office did not handle the case, he doesn’t believe the ruling will set broad precedent. Instead, he said, the decision is specific to the facts in this particular case.  

“I think there are other cases that are out there that may warrant a different result,” he said. 

Valerio said he expects additional legal challenges to result from the judicial emergency declaration in the state court system. “I don’t think even a public emergency suspends your civil liberties and rights under the Constitution,” he added.

He also said that, because of the challenges and logistics of holding jury trials during the pandemic, they could be delayed until a Covid-19 vaccine became available.

LaBrecque is being held at the Springfield prison.

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Alan J. Keays

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