CARIBOU, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court earlier this week set aside the conviction of a Michigan man found guilty of two domestic violence charges in an Aroostook County court last year and sent the case back to the court so he can be resentenced on lesser charges.
The state supreme court determined that the evidence submitted at the trial of Reno Metzger was insufficient to prove that he and the female victim he stood accused of beating were “family or household members,” which is necessary for a conviction in a case involving domestic violence charges.
The Law Court heard oral arguments in the case on May 19, with Assistant District Attorney Todd Collins representing the state and Timothy E. Zerillo, a Portland attorney, representing Metzger.
Metzger, 37, was found guilty last year of domestic violence assault and domestic violence reckless conduct by Judge Bernard O’ Mara in Caribou District Court. The incident took place in Caribou on July 30, 2008, according to the ruling written by Supreme Judicial Court Justice Andrew Mead.
Just after 1 a.m., Caribou police Officer Douglas Bell responded to a call for assistance at the Par & Grill, a restaurant and bar approximately nine-tenths of a mile from the police station. Bell arrived at the business less than 90 seconds after the call was made and went inside to find a woman on the floor “crying hard, breathing rapidly, [and] look[ing] . . . scared,” Mead wrote. In referring to the officer’s account, the ruling also points out that the victim was “covered with blood,” the right side of her head was swollen, and there was a cut over her left eye. Bell asked her, ““What happened?” He then asked her whether she was hurt and, “Who did it?”
The victim, also of Michigan, told Bell that her boyfriend, Reno Metzger, had kicked her in the stomach and hit her repeatedly, according to Mead.
Bell summoned an ambulance and began looking for Metzger. The officer found him in the parking lot of the business, according to the ruling, and described him as “very drunk” and “very distraught.” Metzger was bleeding and had blood on him. Metzger asked how the victim was, and Bell arrested and charged him with the two domestic violence crimes.
Both are Class C crimes punishable by up to five years in jail and a $5,000 fine. Metzger pleaded not guilty and requested a bench trial, which was presided over by O’Mara.
Collins said Wednesday that Metzger and the victim were both long-haul truck drivers who were in the city that night. After the incident at the bar, the victim went back to her home in Michigan and could not be found to testify at Metzger’s trial.
“We couldn’t locate her no matter how hard we tried,” Collins said.
Bell was the only witness to testify at the trial, and he bore witness regarding what the victim told him had happened. He also testified that the victim had identified Metzger as her assailant and called him her “boyfriend.”
Metzger argued that because the victim did not testify at his trial, the court erred in allowing Bell to testify that she identified him as her attacker at the crime scene.
Zerillo, Metzger’s attorney, argued that the victim’s statements to Bell were inadmissible under the hearsay rule, which states that testimony or documents that quote a witness not in court are not admissible. Zerillo also argued that the admission of the victim’s statements violated Metzger’s confrontation clause rights under state and federal law. The confrontation clause assures the right of a defendant to confront the accuser.
O’Mara rejected that argument, and Metzger was convicted of domestic violence assault and sentenced to eight months in jail with all but four months suspended and two years of probation with numerous conditions. He also was ordered to pay a $500 fine. On the domestic violence reckless conduct conviction, he was sentenced to four months concurrent incarceration.
Collins said that Metzger served his sentence on the domestic violence convictions at Aroostook County Jail in Houlton, but went ahead with the appeal.
While the Law Court found that O’Mara did not err in ruling that the victim’s statements were admissible, they disagreed with the domestic violence language in the charges.
While the court found that there were several references in the police report and trial record to Metzger being the victim’s “boyfriend,” it nonetheless ruled that there was “nothing that would establish that they [the victim and Metzger] had been spouses or domestic partners, had a child together, had lived together or had been sexual partners.”
At the same time, the Law Court ruled that there was “sufficient evidence to support convictions on the lesser included crimes of assault and reckless conduct.”
It ruled that the judgment against Metzger be set aside and that he be resentenced on the lesser offenses of assault and reckless conduct.
Reckless conduct and assault are both Class D crimes punishable by less than a year in jail and a fine up to $2,000.
Collins said Metzger is reportedly still in the state and on probation.
While Metzger already has served the time on the more serious charges, the resentencing could change the terms and conditions of his probation or his fine, Collins said.
A date has not yet been set for the resentencing.