Press-Republican

May 8, 2013

Manslaughter case goes to jury today

By KIM SMITH DEDAM Press-Republican
Press-Republican

---- — ELIZABETHTOWN — The Scott Denno manslaughter case will go to the jury on Wednesday.

Before the defense rested on Tuesday afternoon, the defendant took the stand in his own defense, admitting he kicked Robert Rennie during an attack last year.

“I literally kicked Mr. Rennie three times,” he said. “I kicked his thighs and maybe his butt.” 

He added that he “kicked with a very light force — just enough to make it look like I was doing something.”

Denno, of Keeseville, is charged with first-degree manslaughter, gang assault and possession of a weapon in connection with Rennie’s death last August in Keeseville.

Also charged are Michael Rivers and Paul J. Taylor, who will be tried separately.

WEAPON CHARGE DROPPED

Before Denno, 20, gave his interpretation of events, the prosecution rested its case.

And his attorney, Joe Brennan, asked Judge Richard Meyers to dismiss the charges, saying testimony and evidence did not prove his client had beat Rennie to death.

Essex County District Attorney Kristy Sprague countered that the evidence and testimony presented since the trial began last week did prove intent.

She said the medical examiner had testified that “it didn’t matter where the kicks came from,” that the liver isn’t protected and is accessible from all sides.

An autopsy report concluded Rennie died of blunt-force trauma and internal bleeding.

Judge Richard Meyer dropped the weapon charge, saying there was “no proof that the shoes (worn by Denno as he kicked Rennie) caused serious injury or were capable of such.”

He reserved decision on the top two accusations, but then court resumed following a conference with the attorneys and Denno.

‘SQUARED OFF’

For nearly two hours, Denno gave his view of what happened.

He said he stood with Rivers, a man he looked up to as a father, as Rivers and Rennie exchanged words and punches on Front Street before walking down Mill Hill Road to “square off.”

Denno, originally from Georgia, Vt., said he had been living with the Riverses for about four days before the fight took place.

He told the court he did not know Robert Rennie before that day, Aug. 25, 2012.

He said he had spoken with Taylor three times and had never communicated with Taylor by phone.

‘TEXTED TAYLOR’

Denno said that he went with Michael and his wife, Angela Rivers, to the home of Samantha LaCroix to see if Rennie was there. LaCroix had an order of protection against Rennie.

“Mike had got a text from Paul (Taylor), saying Robert was there,” Denno said.

At about 10:30, the trio went to confirm Rennie was with LaCroix and Taylor.

Then Mrs. Rivers called police to report the violation of the protection order.

“We decided we needed to get a hold of Paul Taylor and get him out of the house before police got there,” Denno said.

He added that Taylor was on probation, and the Riverses were afraid he would get caught drinking alcohol.

Denno told his attorney he had never texted Taylor before, but he did that night.

“I told him that I’d been jumped downtown and Mike wasn’t around.”

The ruse worked, and Taylor came out and got into the van.

‘AWAITED POLICE’

They drove to a nearby parking lot and watched to see if police would arrive, Denno said.

He testified that they stayed in case police arrested both LaCroix and Rennie because Mrs. Rivers did not want Child Protective Services to take LaCroix’s three small children.

After 15 minutes or so, Denno said, he and Mr. Rivers got out of the van, and Mrs. Rivers left with Taylor.

‘THREE BLOWS’

He described how he and Mr. Rivers crossed Front Street and headed toward LaCroix’s apartment house and then saw Rennie walking on the other side of the road.

“We walked past him, crossed the street, and Mr. Rivers confronted him by calling him: ‘Rennie,’” Denno said.

“Then he tapped him (Rennie) on the shoulder. (Rennie) was trying to figure out who Mike was. I was on the right-hand side of Mr. Rivers. They started yelling at each other. Mr. Rennie swung. I believe he came into contact with Mr. Rivers.”

Denno said the two men got into a grapple hold.

“Mr. Rennie stumbled but came back with another swing,” he said.

All the while, the two men were exchanging verbal slurs.

Denno said he hit Rennie three times: once in the left jowl, once in the rib area and then once to the shoulder area.

“After that, he fell to the ground. I backed up,” Denno said.

‘CHOKE HOLD’

Then Rennie reached for his right pocket, and Denno said he grabbed the man from behind and held him in a choke hold.

“Mike told me to let him go — that it wasn’t my fight and to stay out of it.”

Then, Denno said, he and Mr. Rivers each grabbed one of Rennie’s arms, walked toward Mill Hill and turned down the road there.

“I believe him (Rennie) and Mr. Rivers were going to square off again,” Denno said, recalling that Rennie was walking between them.

Brennan asked if Denno knew at the time where Taylor was.

“Last I knew, he was in the van,” Denno answered.

Rennie and Rivers were kind of sizing each other up, Denno said.

“Mr. Rennie swung, and he swung wildly,” he said.

Then Taylor “was coming out of nowhere. He was running up … from behind Mr. Rennie.”

‘RENNIE STOOD UP’

Denno said Taylor struck Rennie at the base of the neck, where the spine connects to the head, and Rennie fell to the ground.

There was no conversation with Taylor to that point, Denno said.

Then he saw Taylor kicking Rennie in the midsection and in the chest.

That was when, Denno testified, he contributed his three kicks.

Mr. Rivers told Taylor to stop, Denno said. “He said he (Taylor) was going too far.”

Mr. Rivers jumped over Rennie to try to physically restrain Taylor, who shoved him aside, Denno said.

Then Mrs. Rivers, now in the driver’s seat of the van, turned the vehicle on.

“Mr. Rennie stood up,” Denno said. “He had his right hand over his midsection and started to run-walk down the hill.”

‘COW STEPPED ON HAND’

Denno told Brennan that he had played soccer in school and that his dominant kicking foot was his right foot.

It is Denno’s left boot that was entered as evidence.

The defendant also testified that he told police he had planned to join the Marine Corps but that fell through because he quit school in his junior year of high school.

Brennan asked Denno about red marks on his hand, shown in photographs taken by police.

The marks, he said, came from an injury when he was 16 — he was milking a cow, and it stepped on his hand.

Asked what his intention was that night, Denno answered, “my intention was to just be a bystander and just to stand by my Dad’s side.”

Mrs. Rivers testified earlier that Denno, who is the same age as the Riverses’ two sons, Brendon and Alex, referred to them as “Mom” and “Dad.”

In statements to police, Denno said he had been told that Rennie had threatened to burn down the Riverses’ mobile home, killing them and their children.

EVERY ELEMENT

Following cross examination by Sprague, both attorneys presented final arguments to the jury, comprised of five men and nine women, including two alternates.

The final instructions will come this morning from Essex County Judge Richard B. Meyer, looking to the remaining charges against Denno.

Brennan urged the jury to listen closely to the instructions.

“You have to be satisfied that the prosecution has proved (guilt) beyond any reasonable doubt,” the defense attorney said.

He claimed that prosecutors did not prove beyond reasonable doubt that every element of either the manslaughter case or the gang assault is satisfied.

“There is going to be no proof to establish various elements,” Brennan said, naming Denno’s “intent” and the legal definition of causes of “serious physical injury.”

“There was nothing that Scott Denno did that he caused the death of Robert Rennie,” he said.

The only intention, Brennan said, of the group that went to LeCroix’s house, was to verify that Rennie was there against a protection order, call police, and they remained in place in case LeCroix was arrested, too.

“The intention was to call police and have Robert Rennie arrested.”

‘DIDN’T DESERVE DEATH’

Sprague, in her summation, said Denno already had it in his head that “he was going to hit Robert Rennie.”

And when the cops didn’t come to LeCroix’s home, “now they’re going to handle it on their own.”

The assault, the district attorney said, didn’t stop with a few punches and a shouting match.

“It was Denno and Rivers who dragged Rennie ... to where? Paul Taylor. He (Denno) dragged Robert Rennie to his death. Period. 

“He kicked him along with two other men for a minute, repeatedly kicking an 118-pound man. Rennie didn’t deserve what happened to him,” Sprague said.

“He didn’t deserve to die.”

Email Kim Smith Dedam:kdedam@pressrepublican.com