AUGUSTA, Maine — Saying allegations that her verdict was tainted in any way “impugns the public’s belief that the system works,” Justice Nancy Mills denied convicted killer Shannon Atwood a new trial Wednesday.
Sporting a scruffy growth of beard, Atwood, 37, appeared in Kennebec County Superior Court in shackles and an orange jumpsuit. He showed no emotion upon hearing the ruling.
Atwood was convicted July 2 of the 2006 murder of Cheryl Murdoch, 38. The couple had lived together on Route 23 in Canaan, and Murdoch’s body was found in nearby woods. She died of blunt-force trauma to the head.
After five dozen witnesses and four days of testimony watched by a packed courtroom of observers, Mills convicted Atwood. But moments before she rendered her verdict, in a conference with Atwood’s defense team and the state’s prosecutor in her chambers, Mills said that she realized when she saw a newspaper article that she knew Atwood’s previous victim, Jennifer Nickerson-Stewart of Skowhegan.
Atwood was convicted of aggravated assault on Nickerson-Stewart 15 years ago and served time in prison for that offense.
At the time, defense lawyers John Alsop and Arnold Clark raised no objection, but minutes later when Mills referred to a statement Atwood had made to police regarding serving time in prison, Alsop decided to file a motion for a new trial.
In his argument to Mills on Wednesday morning, Alsop said he gave a lot of thought to filing the motion, “but we have an issue here that needs to be dealt with.”
Alsop said he was not saying that Mills had acted improperly, but rather there was a perception that her verdict was tainted by her knowledge of the previous victim.
“This, admittedly, was a close case, and this verdict has implications of due process violations,” he said.
He called the newspaper articles that Mills saw “extremely provocative and damning” and said “Shannon Atwood likely will spend all, if not the rest, of his life in jail. In the interest of justice, we should be granted a new trail.”
Assistant Attorney General Andrew Benson said that in order for a new trial to be granted, there would have to be actual impropriety by Judge Mills, “not the appearance of impropriety. There is no reason at all to grant Mr. Atwood a new trial. This is a last-ditch effort to overturn the verdict.”
In her nine-page ruling, which she read in its entirety in open court, Mills said that she had no previous knowledge that Nickerson-Stewart was Atwood’s victim. She said that from 2004 to 2006, Nickerson-Stewart was her hairdresser.
“The issue is not whether I knew [her], but what I knew about [her] life,” Mills said. Mills denied any knowledge that Nickerson-Stewart had been victimized by Atwood and said that she recognized Nickerson-Stewart by a photograph in the newspaper and did not read the accompanying article. “Whatever involvement she has in this case, I know nothing about it,” Mills said.
The justice also said that she only used Atwood’s statement about previous prison time to show that he had an antagonistic attitude toward police that dramatically had changed over a short period of days.
She said the allegations that she was prejudiced are “false and contrary to the record.”
After the hearing Wednesday, Alsop, who is also Somerset County’s probate judge, said that filing the motion was a difficult task.
“I am satisfied we raised the issue. It had to be raised,” Alsop said. “There are parts of being a defense lawyer that are not fun. This is one of those times … standing by when your client goes down the tubes.”
Benson said Atwood’s sentencing would likely be held by the end of November.
Atwood also initially was charged with the murder of his estranged wife, Shirley Moon-Atwood, who has been missing since April 2006. Those charges were dropped.
Moon-Atwood’s parents, Colby and Alicia Moon of Pittsfield, were in the courtroom but did not speak. They left the courtroom quietly after the hearing, holding hands.
Nickerson-Stewart was also in the courtroom, but also did not make any statement.