Supreme Court to hear appeal of bottle redemption case during visits to high schools

Posted Oct. 20, 2012, at 12:13 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — High school students in three Maine communities will see and hear firsthand how the appellate process works when the Maine Supreme Judicial Court takes its annual road trip.

Justices will hear oral arguments in Biddeford on Tuesday, Brunswick on Wednesday and Bucksport on Friday. The court will hear three cases at each school in the morning hours.

The issues to be considered in criminal cases range from the legality of the forfeiture of cash by a convicted drug dealer to the right of a defendant to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to a convicted murderer’s request for additional DNA testimony on duct tape.

The civil cases challenge a police officer’s decision to engage in a high speed chase, the town of Scarborough’s decision in a land dispute involving the Portland Museum of Art and a judge’s ruling in a dispute between two businesses over the purchase of a Smart Car.

The first case in which students will hear oral arguments involves the high-profile prosecution of the former owners of a Kittery redemption center. Thomas Woodard was convicted of illegally redeeming more than 100,000 bottles and cans between April 4, 2008, and Feb.18, 2010, that he knew originally were purchased outside of Maine.

Woodard, who was charged with Class B theft along with his wife, was convicted by a jury on Aug. 19, 2011, in York County Superior Court. His wife, Megan Woodard, was found not guilty the same day by a separate jury.

A year ago, Superior Court Justice Carl O. Bradford sentenced Thomas Woodard to 21 months in prison with all but 21 days suspended and ordered him to pay $10,000 in restitution to the distribution firms that had paid the Woodards’ company for bottles collected in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and redeemed at Green Bee Redemption in Kittery.

He remains free on bail pending the outcome of his appeal, according to a previously published report.

Thomas Woodard’s attorneys, Richard D. Grundy of Lynnfield, Mass., and Neil Jamieson of Portland, argued in their brief to the high court that not enough evidence was presented at the trial to convict their client. The attorneys also argued that Assistant Attorney General Leann Robbin committed prosecutorial misconduct when she asked the jury in her closing argument to “send a message that you can’t be ripping off Maine beverage distributors” by returning a guilty verdict.

Robbin argued in her brief that the state had presented enough evidence to convict the defendant. She also denied asking the jury to go further than the judge had instructed them and what the evidence had proven.

“The prosecutor was not asking the jury to ‘send a message’ regardless of whether or not they concluded that Woodard was guilty of theft,” Robbin wrote. “She was asking them to ‘send a message’ because the evidence demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that Woodward was in fact guilty of theft. Her comments at the conclusion of a lengthy closing argument did not deprive Woodard of a fair trial.”

The Woodards’ trial was the first in the state over bottle redemption fraud, according to a previously published report. Robbin said in August 2011 that she had not brought charges against others suspected of illegally redeeming out-of-state bottles due to a lack of evidence.

While Maine’s bottle law requires purchasers of most bottled and canned drinks to pay a five-cent deposit, Massachusetts’ law requires deposit on beer, malt or carbonated beverages but not on water, juice or sports drinks. New Hampshire has no bottle law.

At the time of the Woodards’ trial, the Maine Beverage Association estimated that bottle fraud in Maine costs distributors about $8 million a year.

Briefs filed in the nine cases to be considered by justices at high schools this week are posted on the website for the Maine Supreme Judicial Court at http://www.courts.state.me.us/maine_courts/supreme/oral_arguments.shtml.

There is no timetable under which the court must issue its decisions.

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