A massive winter storm bringing snow and ice to large swaths of the country and region, is impacting Vermont's court system and a high-profile trial now underway in Burlington.
The sexual assault trial was already very unusual for being the third time the case is in court. And now the weather has made it even more unusual, as key witnesses for both the defense and the prosecution are struggling to make it to Vermont to testify. Several are flying in from the Southwest or the Midwest, or driving up from Southern New England.
They're coming for the case of Shane Casey and Stacey Parnitzke-- the couple accused of routinely forcing a child Parnitzke was responsible for into being their sex slave; making her watch pornographic movies and then act out what she saw on the tapes.
The storm's travel tie-ups mean this rare re-trial may actually feature the defense presenting evidence before the prosecution is done with its case. Legal analyst Cheryl Hanna, a faculty member at Vermont Law School, said shuffling like this is not ideal but is not unheard of-- it's just the way Vermont courts have to do business in the middle of winter. The big pressure, Hanna said, is on the lawyers and judge to make sure the changes don't impact fairness.
Tuesday, Vt. Superior Court Judge Michael Kupersmith sent jurors home early because of the snowfall, and told them to come in late Wednesday, saying safety should come first. "If the road conditions are hazardous-- they shouldn't try. It's not that important. And also-- not to rush, because we will wait if they're on their way," Judge Kupersmith said.
"All the parties involved, the prosecution, the defense, and the court are going to work together and get this trial done. And work through the weather," Chittenden County Prosecutor T.J. Donovan said.
Reporter Jack Thurston: Any concerns about whether rescheduling or shuffling things may confuse the jurors at all?
Donovan: Well, there's always that concern. But I think, as I said, this is the third time we've done this case. We need to get this done. We're confident in the strength of our case.
The lynchpin of the prosecution's case is testimony from the alleged victim herself. We were expecting that Tuesday, but one of the many scheduling changes in the trial pushed her to Wednesday.
One of the suspects wanted to talk to WCAX Tuesday. Stacey Parnitzke approached me briefly during a break in court. She was very polite; she and her husband Shane Casey have said for years that these claims are complete fabrications. Parnitzke asked that we be sympathetic to her, suggesting that no matter how this trial goes she'll be branded a sex criminal and that's not right.
Our justice system still presumes Parnitzke and Casey are innocent, pending the jury's verdict.