Press-Republican

May 1, 2013

First witnesses called in Denno trial

By KIM SMITH DEDAM
Press-Republican

---- — ELIZABETHTOWN — Brian McNeilly had just driven down Mill Hill Road in Keeseville, delivering newspapers, when he caught sight of a body near the closed River Street bridge.

“I stopped at the first house,” he testified in Essex County Court on Tuesday morning, “and got out of the car to throw the paper. 

“I seen an individual laying on the ground.”

McNeilly was one of the first witnesses called in the manslaughter case against Scott E. Denno, 19, who is charged in connection with the beating death of Robert Rennie last August.

Awaiting trial are Michael D. Rivers, 36, also charged with first-degree manslaughter; and Paul J. Taylor, 39, whose charges include second-degree homicide.

McNeilly, a former newspaper delivery man for the Press-Republican, told the court he approached the prone figure.

“I knelt down,” he said. “(I) shrugged his shoulder lightly and asked him if he was OK.”

Then, he said, he went to get help from a nearby neighbor, who called the Keeseville Ambulance Squad. 

‘NO SIGN OF LIFE’

The newspaper delivery man waited until an emergency medical technician arrived.

That person was Polly King, who lives about five houses up the street.

The call was dispatched at 6:12 a.m. Aug. 26, the EMT recalled.

King said she found a “man laying face down right at the edge of the bridge where it’s got a barrier.”

She told the court she attended school with Rennie and recognized him as she moved his elbow to check for a pulse on his neck and wrist.

“He had blood coming from his face and blood on his head.”

When she found no sign of life, King called dispatchers and asked for State Police assistance.

ORDER OF PROTECTION

Testimony Tuesday afternoon brought to light the fact that Rennie, Taylor and a woman both men had been dating spent some time on the night of Aug. 25 drinking at her apartment.

Samantha LaCroix, 25, told the court that Taylor was living with her, as a roommate, that night.

She testified that she had dated Rennie from September 2011 until August 2012, then dated Taylor for two days “when me and Robert (Rennie) broke up.”

LaCroix also told the court that there was an Order of Protection preventing Rennie from spending time with her but they broke that Protection Order “often.”

Angela Rivers, the wife of defendant Michael Rivers, is LaCroix’s cousin, and the young woman said that Angela provided child care for her three children.

LaCroix, Taylor, Michael Rivers and Denno all worked together for a time at an apple packing company.

LaCroix testified that she and Rennie, who had two young daughters, met at Keeseville Elementary School at noon Aug. 25 with several of their children.

There, she said, she made plans with Rennie to come over later that night. She also said she asked Taylor if it was OK for Rennie to visit.

The Riverses arrived at about 8:30, LaCroix said.

‘DRANK TOGETHER’

The couple stayed about an hour, then Taylor and LaCroix went to buy alcoholic beverages at a store in Keeseville.

LaCroix said Rennie arrived at her home after she and Taylor returned from the store, but she was not certain of the time. The three spent some time drinking together.

Rennie, LaCroix said, “looked normal,” and “he wasn’t slurring (his words),” she said, but that “he smelled like alcohol” when he arrived at the apartment.

Taylor later left, leaving LaCroix and Rennie alone.

LaCroix could not remember what time it was when Rennie left after that, nor the exact time that Taylor returned later that night.

She did provide police with a statement on Aug. 26, after Rennie was found dead.

Defense attorney Brennan asked if she remembered telling police that Taylor had come home at about 1:30 a.m.

She recalled in court Tuesday that Taylor had gone into the bathroom and washed his hands upon arriving at the apartment.

At no time when LaCroix was on the stand did either attorney ask or discuss Denno’s role in the party or establish whether or not he had been at the woman’s apartment.

‘VERBAL ARGUMENT’

Essex County District Attorney Kristy Sprague is trying the case with Assistant District Attorney Michael Langey as co-counsel.

Attorney Joe Brennan, working for the Public Defender’s Office, is defending Denno.

Tuesday morning, Sprague told the gallery of 12 jurors and three alternates that she would like to be able to provide a reason why this homicide took place.

But, she said, she won’t be able to.

Late at night Aug. 25, Sprague said, into the early morning of Aug. 26, Denno and two other men beat Rennie so badly that he died.

She said her case will show how Denno accompanied Michael Rivers — a man Sprague said Denno calls “Dad” — when Rivers engaged Rennie in a verbal argument.

That argument turned into fisticuffs, and punches were thrown.

BOOTS AND DNA

The evidence will also prove, Sprague said, that Rennie was so drunk that he couldn’t throw a punch and that Denno and Rivers dragged Rennie down Mill Hill Road, where they joined up with the third alleged killer, Paul Taylor.

They all participated in kicking a defenseless Rennie, the DA said, and Rivers’s wife tried to stop the violence.

“She yelled for them to stop, pleading with them, yelling that they were going to kill him,” Sprague said.

At 118 pounds, she said, Rennie was no match for the three bigger men.

“He was so drunk, he couldn’t defend himself.”

Sprague said DNA evidence will link all three pairs of boots the alleged attackers had on that night to the beating death of Rennie.

‘NO INTENT TO KILL’

In Denno’s defense, Brennan said evidence is going to show the person who had intent (to kill) was not Scott Denno, claiming further that his client is not guilty of either manslaughter (the top charge against him) or of gang assault.

“No question Scott Denno was present,” the attorney said.

“(But) Ms. Sprague kind of lumped the conduct of all three (alleged killers) together.”

Brennan said the phrase “with intent” reflects the state of mind of an individual involved in the contact.

And he said they was no intent on Denno’s part.

‘KICKED NUMEROUS TIMES’

When Rivers began to fight with Rennie, Brennan said, Rennie reached into his pocket.

Thinking there was imminent danger, Denno threw three punches.

“None of those punches caused injury to Robert Rennie,” Brennan said.

When Rivers and Rennie crossed the street and continued fighting, Denno was not participating, Brennan said.

Then Taylor, whose trial for second-degree murder is set for June, came along.

“He struck Rennie on the back of the head,” Brennan said.

“He (Taylor) struck him, kicked him numerous times,” he said. “Those blows — by Paul Taylor — caused the death of Robert Rennie.”

‘AN ACCOMPLICE’

Brennan said the prosecution’s charges of first-degree manslaughter and gang assault “with intent” alleges a state of mind.

“I don’t believe the evidence in this case is going to show you … that Scott Denno ever had intent … to cause the death of Robert E. Rennie,” he said.

Sprague raised precedent with Judge Richard Meyer, suggesting case law shows that prosecution need not prove the defendant delivered the death blow, “but acted as an accomplice” in both claims.

The court recessed at noon for a lunch break and resumed at about 1:30 p.m.

Denno was arraigned along with Rivers and Taylor last October; all three remain jailed.

Rivers will be tried separately as well, with jury selection set for May 21.

Denno’s trial was set to continue at 9 a.m. today.

Email Kim Smith Dedam: kdedam@pressrepublican.com