Edward Peter Leclair’s hand shook as he reached for his water bottle inside a courtroom last Thursday and waited to hear whether a jury in Denton County, Texas, had found him guilty of five counts of child sexual assault.
The drink was slightly cloudy, but as the judge read aloud the guilty verdict for each count, Mr. Leclair, 57, quickly chugged it. About five minutes later, after he was taken by bailiffs to a nearby detention cell, he began throwing up. An ambulance took him to a hospital. Forty-five minutes later, he was dead.
Immediately, Mr. Leclair’s lawyer and prosecutors, who were in the courtroom and described Mr. Leclair’s actions, asked themselves: What had Mr. Leclair put in his drink?
“We’ve had incidences of people fainting. We’ve had heart attacks. We’ve even had people who fake illness,” said Jamie Beck, the first assistant attorney for the Denton County District Attorney’s office, which prosecuted the case. “But never something like this.”
The medical examiner’s office in Denton County is investigating the cause of death and whether it was related to some sort of poison. But prosecutors believe that Mr. Leclair, who was out on bond, sneaked cyanide — a deadly chemical — into the courthouse and put it in his Dasani water bottle as jurors deliberated for three and a half hours, Ms. Beck said. Surveillance footage from inside the Denton County Court building shows Mr. Leclair purchasing the water from a vending machine at about 7 a.m., she added.
Mr. Leclair’s lawyer, Mike Howard, said, “I think he made the decision to do what he did at the last moment,” when he realized that he could face up to 100 years in prison, which was a likely outcome given the seriousness of the charges and the conservative nature of the county.
“Had he waited another 30 seconds, he would have been in sheriff’s custody and not had access to that bottled water,” Mr. Howard said. “He wouldn’t have been able to. So, you know, I think he knew.”
The trial, which lasted four days, had not been closely monitored in Denton, a suburb of Dallas. The specifics of the case were dark, Ms. Beck and Mr. Howard said: Mr. Leclair, of Frisco, had been accused of raping a girl between 13 and 17 years old five times from 2016 to 2018. The victim had testified during the trial, sharing disturbing details, Ms. Beck said.
But the case had not garnered attention until various local news organizations, including The Denton Record-Chronicle, reported on Mr. Leclair’s apparent death by suicide.
Ms. Beck said Mr. Leclair’s final action was a selfish one.
“Not only did the offense traumatize the victim, and, you know, having to testify at the trial,” she said. “But then to have this happen, it’s like re-victimizing her all over again with his actions.”
Mr. Howard described Mr. Leclair as a normal client who was engaged throughout the trial, taking notes and asking questions. Mr. Leclair had worked as a corporate recruiter for years before losing his job during the pandemic, Mr. Howard said.
When he saw Mr. Leclair drink the water, Mr. Howard recalled, he thought: “Of course his mouth went dry. He just got very serious news.”
Perhaps his hand shaking, Mr. Howard thought at the time, would help show the jury that Mr. Leclair was a human being and not a “coldblooded monster.”
After Mr. Leclair threw up and emergency management services workers prepared to take him to a hospital, Mr. Howard said, he got one final look at his client, who had a “very grayish-white color” to him and looked in extremely bad shape.
Ms. Beck said that grayish color — along with his rapid death and the futile chest compressions — is why prosecutors with the district attorney’s office believe he ingested cyanide, which prevents the body’s cells from using oxygen, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If it was cyanide, how he sneaked it in and in what form remains a mystery, Ms. Beck said. He could have placed it in a tiny pill, which would have been difficult for officers at the courthouse to detect, she added.
The 12 jurors, who were supposed to decide the length of his sentence by Friday morning, were dismissed on Thursday and not told what had occurred. The judge asked them to return to court on Friday morning. Mr. Howard and prosecutors were in the room when the news was shared with jurors.
“It was highly emotional,” Mr. Howard said.
Nearly all the jurors began to cry. Some believed that they had essentially driven a man to kill himself because of their verdict, he said.
“The judge was concerned that they would feel guilty — that they would feel guilty like this was their fault,” Mr. Howard said.
Wanting to ease the jurors’ minds, Mr. Howard said he gave them a forceful message: “You have nothing to feel bad about.”
“I said, ‘You know, the prosecution and defense see this case differently, and that’s OK,’” he recalled. “We’re adversaries, and that’s our job. But at the end of the day, your job is to come in and be fair and apply the law — and you did.”
When prosecutors told the victim what had happened, it “deeply impacted her,” Ms. Beck said.
Mr. Leclair’s manner of death also had a haunting quality for the victim, Ms. Beck said: He would often tell the girl, “If you ever tell somebody, I’m going to kill myself.”
“It’s a way to re-victimize somebody,” Ms. Beck said. “And that’s exactly what happened.”
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