by Andrew Turner
If a man is on trial for allegedly sexually assaulting a girl, should the fact that he is a member of a known gang have any bearing on a jury's decision about his guilt or innocence?
That was a question posed Monday to potential jurors who will decide the fate of Leonard Touzin, 26, of St. Johnsbury, a founding member of the gang La Familia. Touzin is on trial today and Wednesday on a charge of sexual assault of a minor.
The fact that Touzin is a gang member has nothing to do with the charge or the ensuing trial.
However, the issue of gangs itself has been on trial of sorts, here in St. Johnsbury, through public debate and action against a perceived growing tide of gang activity in the region, which some believe has been needlessly aggrandized by the media.
Caledonla District Court
Touzin came to St. Johnsbury a little over a year ago from Massachusetts and started La Familia. In the course of a year's time, local law enforcement officials and members of the public created public attention regarding the arrival of gangs in the Northeast Kingdom.
Informational fliers have been sent to resident's homes via the children attending school here. St. Johnsbury Academy has held meetings and sent information to its faculty and students about the issue, and a relatively large number of citizens appeared at a public forum this winter to work with law enforcement in dealing with gangs.
Deputy State's Attorney Robert Butterfield is prosecuting the case against Touzin, who is represented by Lyndonville attorney Joseph Benning.
Clearly, both attorneys were concerned, Monday, about what affect Touzin's ties with the gang would have on a trial being held in a courtroom just a block from where the first anti-gang meeting was held less than six months ago.
Both lawyers focused potential jurors on publicity surrounding Touzin's alleged crime as well as his involvement in La Familia.
Their intent was to see if the jurors would be prejudiced against Touzin because of his gang involvement and the universal answer from jurors was no. Touzin has been the subject of media coverage regarding past court appearances, including his decision in April to plead no contest to seven of nine charges. Those charges included forgery, petty larceny, and fraudulent use of a credit card, among others.
However, the most widespread publicity, including coverage in the Boston Globe as well as television news shows, has concerned his involvement in the gang.
Both Benning and Butterfield polled potential jurors regarding what they had seen on television or read about Touzin. Many said they were aware of the publicity but that would not affect their ability to judge Touzin fairly.
Butterfield also asked if anyone had a problem with the fact that Vermont's law "has drawn a line" at the age of 16 when it comes to sexual assault cases; that anyone having sexual relations with someone 15 or younger is committing a crime, despite the possibility that it was consentual. Jurors said they didn't find the law to be unjust and that it wouldn't be a stumbling block for them.
Benning, meanwhile, asked Touzin to stand up so that potential jurors could see him. Touzin, sporting a mustache and goatee as well as hair cropped to just above the scalp, stood briefly and then sat down again.
Henning asked the jury pool members if they were a casting director for a movie that had "cops and robbers" and both were needed, in which role would they cast Touzin.
A couple of jury candidates said they would cast him as the robber. Others said they would need more information about him.
Probably the most telling instance of the court's concern over the gang question came at the beginning of jury selection when the presiding judge, Brian Burgess, posed two questions to potential jurors.
He asked those who, through personal history, a relative or in some other way, had any issues regarding sexual assault to speak with him and the attorneys in private chambers.
His second question asked potential jury members to make it clear to him and the attorneys beforehand if the gang issue, again through family ties, acquaintances or some other way, would impair their judgment.
A total of nine jury candidates went into private interviews before selections began. It is unclear which of those individuals expressed concerns regarding gangs or how many of them were dismissed due to their disclosures.