When someone is charged with a crime, the law says that a person is innocent until proven guilty. But what happens when that alleged crime is surrounded by disturbing or salacious circumstances? Can those circumstances affect the jury's impartiality or change how prosecution and defense attorneys present their case?
A recent episode of “SNAPPED” on Oxygen raised these interesting questions in telling the story of Dawn Marie Vercauteren, who was found bludgeoned to death in her home on New Year's Eve 2013—a crime for which her daughter, Sarah Vercauteren, is now serving a life sentence in prison.
According to the report, Dawn and Sarah were once quite close, but Sarah got hooked on heroin as a teenager, had relapsed after a stint in rehab, and eventually got arrested for stealing money from her job to buy heroin. Dawn had tried to help her daughter kick the addiction even to the point of losing her marriage over it, and was also attempting to care for Sarah's young son Skyler. But things took a brutal turn on New Year's Eve 2013 when Dawn refused to let Sarah borrow the car, fearing she was planning to buy heroin.
According to police reports (and a full confession from the defendant), Sarah “snapped,” bludgeoned her mother 18 times with a hammer, attempted to strangle her, then eventually left her tied up with duct tape in the bathroom before stealing $600 and leaving with her son. After a week-long binge in a hotel room, Sarah then robbed a bank for more drug money and was subsequently arrested. It wasn't until Dawn was found deceased that authorities connected Sarah with the murder.
Ultimately, Sarah pled guilty to the murder charge as part of a plea deal and was promptly sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. An appeal of her sentence was denied in 2019. Today, according to the report, Sarah has turned her life around in prison and now talks to inmates about the dangers of drug addiction.
Although Sarah avoided a jury trial by pleading guilty, this story raises a whole variety of questions about what could have happened differently. Would the disturbing details of the case have affected the bias of the jury? Could a now-reformed Sarah have received a lighter sentence had her case been defended in court by an experienced attorney? Or an even deeper question: Could Sarah's and Dawn's futures both turned out differently had the law viewed drug addiction as a sickness rather than a crime?
One thing is clear: If your Pennsylvania criminal charges involve disturbing circumstances that could sway opinion away from you, you should always involve an experienced criminal defense attorney who can offer guidance in navigating through those details—especially before agreeing to a plea deal.
Joseph Lento is a highly knowledgeable Pennsylvania defense attorney with plenty of experience in troubling cases. Call the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 to discuss your case and explore your options.