The media frenzy surrounding the murder of Annie Le GRD ’13 has largely subsided, but its impact will likely linger as the case against alleged killer Raymond Clark III proceeds to trial.
It could be years before a verdict is delivered in the Le case, which was among the top stories in the country last week. That national media attention could affect the course of the trial, Connecticut criminal attorneys said, if the coverage has a significant effect on the opinions of the general public. And public scrutiny could lead prosecutors to seek a tougher sentence for Clark, 24, although it is unlikely that he will face the death penalty.
“Given the nature of the case, he’s going to get a very high offer,” said Raymond Kotulski, a private practice lawyer based in Waterbury, Conn. “They have to come down hard on him because they have to send a message that Connecticut is a safe place, Yale is a safe place, and this kind of behavior is not tolerated.”
Extensive coverage of the murder — fueled by anonymous leaks and replete with inaccuracies — will make it difficult to assemble unbiased jurors with no preconceived notions about the case, attorneys said. Moving the case outside New Haven might not help because media coverage of the murder has been so widespread throughout the state.
“Ideally, they come to the case with no knowledge whatsoever,” Paul Carty, a New Haven defense attorney, said of jurors. “Someone would have to be living in a cave for the last two or three weeks to have not heard about the case and not to form some opinions.”
Of course, much depends on the timeline of the trial. Jurors can have “short memories,” Carty said, and if enough time passes between Le’s murder and Clark’s trial, jurors’ preconceived notions may fade.
At the moment, it does not seem that Le’s murder qualifies as a “capital felony” — that is, a killing punishable by death — under Connecticut state statute. The death penalty is only an option when a murder meets at least one of eight conditions, such as having occurred along with a first-degree sexual assault or having resulted in multiple deaths.
Moreover, New Haven state’s attorney Michael Dearington does not have a history of seeking the death penalty, said Ira Grudberg ’55 LAW ’60, a trial lawyer at Jacobs, Grudberg, Belt, Dow & Katz.
Dearington — who has not spoken publicly about his plans to prosecute the case — asked for execution in the notorious 2007 killing of three women in a home invasion in Cheshire, Conn., a case that still awaits trial.
Far more likely in Le’s case is a harsh plea bargain offer from prosecutors, Kotulski said, such as 50 years to life in prison. In a murder without such a media frenzy, someone in Clark’s position might be offered between 35 and 40 years to life, he added.
But whether Clark accepts or rejects any plea offer will depend largely on the strength of evidence arrayed against him. That evidence has not yet been fully provided to defense, said Joseph Lopez, an assistant New Haven public defender who is representing Clark. Until the defense receives that evidence in full, Lopez said he cannot say whether Clark will plead “guilty” or “not guilty” in the case — although the public defender’s office typically advises its clients to enter a “not guilty” plea.
Kotulski estimated that prosecutors could make Clark a plea offer within three to six months. But he added that a trial could come more quickly than usual because the murder has made headlines across the country.
After all, other aspects of the investigation so far — including the analysis of Clark’s DNA — have proceeded more rapidly than normal for homicide cases.
That DNA will likely be crucial to the outcome of the trial.
“It’s going to be a hard case to defend if the DNA shows that the victim’s blood was on his clothes or the victim has Mr. Clark’s DNA under her fingernails,” Kotulski said.
And regardless of whether the case is strong enough, the question of motive is moot, Lopez said — it is not a requirement for conviction in a murder case. Speaking as a defense attorney, Carty said the question of motive, for him, is not too significant. “One can have motive to do something and then do absolutely nothing,” he said.
Clark’s next court date is set for Oct. 6.
Correction: March 23, 2010
An earlier version of this article misreported that New Haven state’s attorney, Michael Dearington, had only ever sought the death penalty in the 2007 triple murder that occurred in Cheshire, Conn. In fact, Dearington also sought the death penalty in the 2000 case of Jonathan Mills, who killed his aunt and two cousins in Guilford, Conn.