Judge in Atwood case recuses herself from sentencing

Posted Nov. 26, 2008, at 9:39 p.m.

PITTSFIELD, Maine — After rendering a guilty verdict in the Shannon Atwood murder trial this summer and then holding a hearing and declaring she had no conflict of interest in the case earlier this fall, Justice Nancy Mills has recused herself from Atwood’s sentencing.

The action could delay Atwood’s sentencing for months.

In a trial at Somerset County Superior Court, Mills found Atwood guilty in July of this year of the bludgeoning killing of his girlfriend, Cheryl Murdoch, 38, in July 2006. Her body was found in woods nearby the Route 23 Canaan home that the pair shared.

Atwood was initially charged with murdering his estranged wife, Shirley Moon-Atwood, 35, but her body has never been found and the charges were later dropped.

According to court documents filed this week, Mills stated that “information provided to the court after the verdict was rendered” and “information that would not have been admissible at the sentencing” caused her to hand over the case to another justice.

In her recusal, Mills said her impartiality could be questioned.

Mills took defense attorney John Alsop of Skowhegan to task earlier this fall during a hearing on Alsop’s motion to dismiss in Kennebec County Superior Court. Alsop’s motion claimed that Mills knew one of Atwood’s previous victims and that she used this knowledge in returning a guilty verdict.

The victim, Jennifer Nickerson Steward, 37, of Skowhegan, had been Mills’ hairdresser for a time. Atwood was convicted in 1994 of aggravated assault on Steward.

Mills determined she knew only that the newspapers were writing about the previous victim, but said she did not read the stories or the details that connected the victim and Atwood.

Mills also notified both Benson and Alsop of her knowledge moments before she rendered her verdict. There were no objections at the time.

Since objections were raised to the verdict, however, Mills opted to back out, stating in her court filing that the knowledge “creates a circumstance in which the court’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”

Assistant Attorney General Andrew Benson said this week that he had seen this type of recusal before.

“Justice Mills is always very quick to go above and beyond,” he said. Benson said a motion filed after the guilty verdict that questioned Mills’ impartiality may have prompted Mills’ withdrawal.

“I think there is a very benign interpretation,” Benson said. He felt that Mills just wanted to ensure a fair process, one without any taint of impropriety.

Benson said that the recusal could delay Atwood’s sentencing by months. “It certainly is disappointing,” he said.

Alsop would not comment on the recusal.

Mills has ordered a transcript of the case for whomever is assigned the sentencing.

bdnpittsfield@verizon.net

487-3187

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