ROCKLAND, Maine — A Matinicus lobsterman and his daughter wept Friday as a Knox County jury acquitted them of charges in connection with a shooting on the town dock last summer.
Vance Bunker, 68, who also has a home in Owls Head, sighed and hung his head with relief while Janan Miller, 46, of Matinicus and Spruce Head placed her face in her hands and cried.
Both had claimed they acted in self-defense in an escalating dispute over vandalized lobster gear.
A dozen or so of the defendants’ family members and friends also wept joyfully as the jury of eight women and four men announced their verdict about 5 p.m.
Friday after deliberating for more than 10 hours over two days. Testimony in the trial began Monday morning and ended Thursday afternoon.
Christopher Young, 42, of Owls Head, the man Bunker shot on July 20, was not in the courtroom. Neither was his stepbrother Weston Ames, 44, of Matinicus and Owls Head, who also was named a victim in the case. They spent Friday waiting for the verdict in the district attorney’s office on the first floor of the courthouse.
Relatives of the two men were in the courtroom with the Knox County victim-witness advocate. They too wept as they went to inform Young and Ames of the verdict.
Television cameras surrounded Bunker and his family as they left the courthouse.
“I just want to thank everybody,” a tearful Bunker said as he and his family left the courthouse.
His daughter declined to comment.
The not guilty verdict also means Bunker is free to return to Matinicus. His bail conditions had banned him from the island.
“I’m relieved for Vance and Janan,” Bunker’s defense attorney, Philip Cohen of Waldoboro, said after his client left. “These were serious charges.”
Bunker was charged with two counts of elevated aggravated assault, criminal threatening and reckless conduct. Miller was charged with reckless conduct for bringing a loaded shotgun to the town dock and pointing it at Young, Ames and their sternmen.
In answer to a reporter’s question about concern for his client’s safety on Matinicus, Cohen said, “I know that he’s concerned about it.”
William Avantaggio, Miller’s Damariscotta attorney, said he was not concerned for her safety on the island.
Knox County Sheriff Donna Dennison said after the verdict that her department was ready to respond if needed on Matinicus but had not sent a deputy to the island as a result of the verdict.
“If [Bunker] calls and asks for assistance the first time he returns to the island, we certainly would do that,” she said. “What I’ve gotten from people on the island is that they just want to put this behind them and get back to work.”
Knox County District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau expressed disappointment over the verdict and said the victims were disappointed too.
“I’ve just spent the last several minutes with Mr. Young and Mr. Ames,” the prosecutor said at an impromptu press conference on the courthouse steps after the verdict was announced. “They’ve been told about the verdict and right now they don’t want to talk to the media.”
Rushlau praised the jury for its hard work and its careful consideration of the legal application of self-defense.
“This is the process we have and we have to respect it,” he said. “This jury worked hard and this is a difficult area of the law to apply. We had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants didn’t act in self-defense.”
The jury seemed to be focused on the issue of self-defense when they asked Friday morning that interviews with Young and Bunker be replayed. The interviews were taped by law enforcement officials as part of their investigation into the shooting.
One section replayed for the jury described Young’s confrontation with Janan Miller’s husband, Alan Miller.
“We wanted Alan to come up on the dock,” Young said. “We said, ‘Come up on the f—-ing dock. We’ve got something for you.”
The jury then also reheard Bunker describing the moments that led up to his pulling the trigger.
“Wes grabbed the shotgun and started taking it away from Janan,” he said. “Once he grabbed the gun I didn’t know what the hell to do. I shot twice. The first time at Wes, and I missed. The second time Chris lunged for me.”
The events leading up to the shooting, according to testimony during the trial, are rooted in the tradition that allows only people who own property and vote on the island to fish in Matinicus water. State law allows fishermen to work in zones where they are licensed to fish.
Last June, Alan Miller set lobster traps around Matinicus for the first time. He previously had fished in Wheeler Bay and knew most Matinicus lobstermen were opposed to his setting traps around the island, according to testimony.
The day before the shooting, Ames confronted Bunker and Alan Miller on the dock over lost gear. Ames accused the two older men of cutting his traps, which they denied. About 6 a.m. the next morning, Young boarded Bunker’s boat without permission and threatened to kill the captain before Bunker pepper-sprayed him, witnesses testified earlier this week.
Later that morning, Ames and Young chased Alan Miller’s boat and made threats his wife heard over the radio that lobstermen use to communicate with each other and relatives onshore. Janan Miller told the jury that after the chase broke off she saw her husband’s boat coming into the harbor and Ames and Young waiting for him on the dock.
She told the jury she grabbed a shotgun, which she did not know how to use, and ran to the dock to protect her husband, whose life she believed was in danger.
Bunker testified that he brought a loaded .22-caliber revolver to the dock after he learned the brothers were there waiting for his son-in-law.
Neither she nor her father knew a Marine Patrol officer was on board, hoping to overhear a confession of gear cutting. Officer Wes Dean testified that he heard but did not see the shooting.
If he had been convicted of the most serious charge, elevated aggravated assault, Bunker faced up to 30 years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000. His daughter faced up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.
Young and Ames filed a civil suit last year against Bunker, Miller and her husband, Alan Miller, 60, of Spruce Head and Matinicus. That suit is pending in Knox County Superior Court.