Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Quiet, Please

State v. Prue, 2016 VT 98

By Charlie Buttrey

I have been practicing criminal law in Vermont since 1986. As a seasoned criminal defense attorney, I have a couple of suggestions to those who are considering committing a crime. One, do it alone. Two, don’t talk about it.

Allen Prue did not abide by either of these principles and is now serving a life sentence for his role in the brutal murder of 32-year-old Melissa Jenkins, a popular teacher at St. Johnsbury Academy in May of 2014.

After being convicted by a jury of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder and attempted kidnapping, Prue appeals to the Vermont Supreme Court, raising four grounds for his appeal.

The first basis of his appeal is that the trial judge should not have allowed his confession to be used at trial because he had not waived his Miranda rights and the confessions were not voluntary. All of which would have been academic had Prue abided by Admonition #2 above.

The day after Jenkins disappeared, Prue and his wife1 appeared unannounced at the Vermont State police barracks ostensibly to discuss an “identity theft” issue involving his wife’s concerns about the unauthorized use of her credit card. In fact, Prue later admitted that he went to the barracks to “find out what the police knew” regarding Jenkins’ disappearance. While he was there, the police thoughtfully offered him a cup of water, which he graciously accepted, unaware that they would retain the cup for DNA evidence.

The following day, the state police invited Prue back to discuss the “identity theft” issue a little more. About two hours into what ended up being a seven-hour interview, Prue was read his Miranda rights, which he indicated he understood. He eventually confessed to the murder, took the officers to the site where he had buried Jenkins’ body, then to New Hampshire where he and his wife had burned their clothes and other items, and then to the location where he had discarded the cell phone he had used to contact Jenkins.

Prior to the trial, Prue moved to have his statements suppressed on the grounds that he did not knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily waive his Miranda rights. The trial court denied the motion and the Supreme Court affirms. The Court acknowledges that Prue has a below-average mental capacity, that he had been summoned to the barracks through a ruse, that the swearing ceremony that accompanied the warnings was “unorthodox,” and that the trooper wrongfully described the warnings as “formalities.” Indeed, the trial court termed some of the troopers’ actions as “more than a little strange.” Nevertheless, the Court holds that the State had carried its burden of establishing that Prue’s waiver of his Miranda rights was knowing, intelligent and voluntary. Similarly, it has no problem with a delay of about an hour between the time the Miranda rights were read and the time that the questioning began to focus on the details of the homicide, rejecting the suggestion that the confession wasn’t voluntary, where (1) Prue waived his Miranda rights; (2) he stated throughout the interview that he understood the situation; (3) he was not given any improper promises; and (4) he was not the victim of any coercive interrogation techniques.

The Court also rejects the suggestion that Prue should have been allowed to introduce evidence regarding his wife’s psychiatric diagnosis. During his interview, Prue related that he and his wife Patricia had in the past engaged in three-way sex, that on the night of the murder they wanted to find a women to “play with” sexually, that Patricia had called Jenkins to lure her to a deserted area, that Patricia was present when Jenkins arrived, and that Prue strangled her.

Prue wanted to introduce evidence that Patricia suffered from dissociative identity disorder (“DID”) and that “one of her alters is homicidal.” The trial court said, in short, “no way,” and the Supreme Court affirms, noting that the DID diagnosis is controversial in the first place, and agreeing with the trial court that the evidence would be irrelevant unless it could be tied to Patricia’s mental state at the time of the murder, in which case the evidence would have been harmful to Prue’s defense.

Prue also took exception to evidence that a search of Patricia’s laptop revealed that, in the summer of 2011, Patricia had searched on the internet using such search criteria as (1) “xxx how to kidnap a girl”; (2) “ways to kidnap a girl”; (3) “how to kidnap a girl”; (4) how o [sic] kidnap a girl”; (5) “how to love”; and (6) “how to rape a girl and not get caught.”2 The Supreme Court held that the evidence was relevant to the question of the conspiracy between Prue and his wife and that, even if the evidence was more prejudicial than probative, its admission did not constitute the sort of plain error necessary to warrant overturning the conviction.

Finally, the Court spent little time disposing of Prue’s last argument, which was that the trial court should have continued the sentencing hearing, which was more than 2 ½ years after the murder.

Patricia Prue ultimately pled guilty to aggravated attempted murder, kidnapping and conspiracy, and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

1 Please make reference to Admonition #1.

2 This may be a good time to insert a third admonition: Don’t use your laptop to do internet searches on how to do terrible things.

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