Press-Republican

May 22, 2013

Manslaughter trial begins in Essex County Court.

By KIM SMITH DEDAM
Press-Republican

---- — ELIZABETHTOWN — The defense’s opening statement in the Michael Rivers manslaughter case argues there is more to the vicious beating death of Robert M. Rennie in Keeseville last summer. 

Rivers is charged with first-degree manslaughter, felony gang assault and possession of a weapon in the death of Rennie, who was found lifeless near the closed iron bridge Aug. 26.

Scott E. Denno was convicted of the first two of those same charges two weeks ago.

Paul J. Taylor, also of Keeseville, is charged with second-degree homicide in the case; his trial is set for sometime in June.

‘SAW HIM GET UP’

In opening remarks Tuesday, defense attorney Gregory LaDuke questioned statements made by Angela Rivers, Michael Rivers’s wife.

She had testified as an eyewitness in Denno’s trial and is slated to take the stand in her husband’s as well.

LaDuke said Mrs. Rivers gave conflicting statements to police.

“I really can’t promise you what she’s going to say this time around,” he told the newly seated jury.

But LaDuke suggests that Rennie was “found right on top” of that bridge.

“There’s blood on the guardrail; there’s blood on the stones,” he said, alleging previous accounts presented in court statements and at the Denno trial did not depict where Rennie was killed.

LaDuke drew from previous testimony given by Mrs. Rivers, who had outlined events she said took place in a parking area some 750 feet up Mill Hill Road.

Both Mrs. Rivers and Denno testified that they saw Rennie get up and run down the hill after being kicked by all three men charged in the his death.

LaDuke said the fight took place at the bridge.

“Bloody things on the tarmac” point to the area where the fight occurred, he said.

“Not up above (on Mill Hill Road) where Angela said.”

And, the defense attorney said, Taylor’s whereabouts are unaccounted for from about 12:20 a.m. until 1:30 a.m. on Aug. 26.

“Nobody can tell where he was,” LaDuke said. 

‘ONE BIG PUZZLE’

Essex County District Attorney Kristy Sprague outlined the case against Mr. Rivers, saying all of the testimony to come in his trial is “pieces of one big puzzle.” 

She contends that Mr. Rivers’s actions dealt serious physical injuries that caused Rennie’s death.

And, Sprague said, he acted in concert “with requisite intent” to cause the wounds that left the Keeseville father of two young girls mortally injured.

“The defendant didn’t like Robert Rennie. He made that very clear … in the past,” Sprague said. “The defendant’s hatred for Robert Rennie led him … to fighting with (Rennie) and dragging him (to the dark Mill Hill location).”

Sprague said the defense would argue that Mr. Rivers wore sneakers.

“But the People will prove,” she said, “that he wore those sneakers, and he kicked and he kicked … he used them to injure another person … taking his life in the end.”

POLICE DELAYED

The first few witnesses Tuesday came in a sequence similar to that of Denno’s trial.

State Police Trooper Keith Paine testified that an anonymous woman placed a call to the 911 Plattsburgh dispatcher (on Aug. 25) saying that Rennie was with his former girlfriend, Samantha LaCroix, at the Front Street apartment they used to share, despite an order of protection.

Paine said he and Trooper Andrew Cornell headed to the LaCroix home at that time but were diverted to a fatal car accident on Interstate 87.

Cornell told the court that, after leaving the fatal crash, they went to two other calls before being rerouted to Keeseville for an unattended death, which turned out to be Rennie’s.

Cornell said that, after he told the sergeant there that he had been called to the LaCroix residence earlier that night, he proceeded to go up the road to her apartment house to see if she was all right.

The trooper said he knew Rennie had previously lived at that location.

When he arrived, Cornell said, Taylor was also at the home, along with LaCroix and her three children.

‘BLOOD ON LEGS’

Also on the stand Tuesday was Brian McNeilly, the former Press-Republican newspaper delivery person who found Rennie and asked a neighbor to call 911.

“I seen a set of legs. I looked. I knelt down. I asked him if he was OK and didn’t get a response,” McNeilly told Sprague.

“I noticed that there was blood on the legs itself.”

McNeilly said he recognized the man. 

“I went to school with Robert Rennie.”

He said he left after emergency medical technician Polly King arrived.

LaDuke presented a photograph of Rennie’s body, entered as evidence, and asked McNeilly where he was standing when he checked on the unresponsive man.

McNeilly couldn’t remember where he knelt down and “shrugged” Rennie’s shoulder.

JURY SELECTION

King also testified Tuesday, telling the court she tried to get a pulse from Rennie’s wrist.

“His body was so stiff, I couldn’t move it.”

She said there was “blood on the back of his head. And blood from his face area.”

She also recognized the victim as Rennie.

A school bus driver, King said, she dropped his two daughters off at their house after school every day.

And “he was there religiously, every day,” she said.

Mr. Rivers sat in court beside his attorney, dressed in a white shirt and khaki slacks and and escorted by court guards.

The jury selection took all of Tuesday morning; testimony began at 1:30 p.m.

The jury — 12 plus four alternates — is made up of 12 women and four men.

The trial resumes at 9 a.m. today.

Email Kim Smith Dedam: kdedam@pressrepublican.com