Attorney to high court: Key witness in Bangor murder case was ‘bullied’ into changing his story

Posted April 12, 2012, at 1:41 p.m.
Last modified April 12, 2012, at 5:42 p.m.
Colin Koehler
Colin Koehler
Holly Boutilier
Holly Boutilier

PORTLAND, Maine — An attorney representing Colin Koehler told the Maine Supreme Judicial Court Thursday that a witness who could help exonerate the convicted killer was “bullied” by detectives into changing his story.

Defense attorney Peter J. Cyr told the state’s highest court during a 40-minute hearing Thursday morning that Koehler should be granted a new trial and that the life sentence he received after his original trial was excessive.

Koehler was convicted in 2010 of intentional or knowing murder for the 2009 stabbing in Bangor of 19-year-old Holly Boutilier of Old Town.

Gene Boutilier, Holly’s father, was among a number of the victim’s family and friends present Thursday in Portland for the Supreme Judicial Court hearing.

“This has been long and drawn out,” Gene Boutilier told the Bangor Daily News after the hearing. “The [life] sentence should rest the way it was. I hope this is the end. None of us need to go through this again. With all the murders that have gone on since her murder, there should be more life sentences.”

In his address of the court and again after the hearing, Cyr acknowledged the severity of the crime Koehler has been convicted of, but compared his client’s life imprisonment with the 60-year sentence received by Chad Gurney, who was found guilty of strangling, beheading and setting fire to his girlfriend in 2009.

“When you’re talking about murder, they’re all cruel — they’re all gruesome,” Cyr said after leaving the courtroom. “Gurney is getting a term of years, while Colin Koehler is getting ‘life.’”

Cyr also argued before the court Thursday that Koehler should be granted a new trial on the basis of witness testimony that emerged after his original trial. He said John Whitney, who shared a jail cell with Koehler after the trial, told Koehler and a private investigator for the defense that he saw the victim walking toward the Bangor waterfront shortly before the murder with “two or three men, none of whom were Colin Koehler.”

A Superior Court judge denied Koehler’s request for a retrial last May after Whitney changed his story in testimony delivered to Bangor police. But Cyr argued on Thursday that Whitney’s original story should be the one considered by the court. The defense attorney described a recording of Whitney’s interview with Bangor detectives, saying he abruptly changed his testimony after a stop in the taping, and attributed the about-face to “bullying, pressuring and mocking” by the investigators.

“There’s no question something inappropriate went on between when the tape went off and when it came back on again,” Cyr told the BDN Thursday. “If our private investigator had done the same thing with a state witness, he would have been charged with tampering with a witness.”

He also said incriminating text messages sent from Koehler’s telephone to his former girlfriend were sent by Justin Ptaszynski, a friend who testified against Koehler in court.

But high court judges on Thursday questioned whether Whitney’s testimony is reliable enough to convince them to throw out the previous verdict, noting that Superior Court Justice William Anderson already ruled it was not.

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley also said the life sentence was based on the original judge’s belief that the murder of Boutilier was so unpredictable — a so-called “thrill kill” — there would be no way of being sure the killer wouldn’t do it again if eventually released. Saufley said Gurney, in comparison, suffers from a mental illness, which might provide warning signs or methods of treatment that might keep him from becoming violent again.

Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber told the court Thursday the preponderance of evidence against Koehler would not be overcome even if faced with the addition of Whitney’s testimony. He reiterated the state’s case that the surprise nature of the murder, with no apparent forewarning, justified a life sentence.

“This is a brutal, premeditated execution of a girl that has made a tremendous impact on her friends and family,” Macomber told the justices.

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