PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday unanimously upheld the conviction of Garrett Cheney in the hit-and-run death of a University of Maine student in January 2010.
Garrett Cheney, 24, of South Berwick was sentenced Dec. 7, 2011, to 15 years in prison, with all but seven years suspended, for manslaughter in the death of Jordyn Bakley, 20, of Camden.
In addition to manslaughter, Cheney was found guilty by a jury on July 28, 2011, of aggravated criminal operating under the influence of intoxicants, leaving the scene of an accident that resulted in serious bodily injury and criminal operating under the influence of intoxicants.
Justices heard oral arguments in the case Sept. 12 in Portland.
Penobscot County District Attorney R. Christopher Almy praised the work of investigators Tuesday when asked for his reaction to the court’s decision.
“We are pleased with the law court’s decision and grateful that all the hard work that Detective [Andrew] Whitehouse, the Orono police and the Maine State Police put into this case paid off,” Almy said Tuesday in an email.
Timothy Zerillo, the Portland attorney who handled Cheney’s appeal but did not represent him during the trial, maintained his client’s innocence in a statement emailed to the Bangor Daily News.
“The Maine Supreme Court in it’s decision indicated that there were errors in the trial court, but they were harmless errors, or they were errors that Mr. Cheney’s trial lawyer did not object to,” Zerillo said. “It is our belief that the errors were fatal to Mr. Cheney’s case.
“We continue to assert that Garrett Cheney is innocent of the crime of manslaughter,” the attorney continued. “Mr. Cheney and his family will evaluate all their options going forward, but I expect him to continue to do everything he can possibly do to protest his innocence.”
The court found that a statement Almy made in his closing statement that “Cheney had no evidence” that someone else struck the victim “was improper.”
“Over the course of a long trial, it is understandable that prosecutors may, at times, slip into a more familiar vernacular,” Justice Donald Alexander wrote for the court in the 19-page opinion. “Nevertheless, it is essential that the state avoid making any statement suggesting that a criminal defendant has any burden to disprove the charges against him or her. The state is free, however to forcefully argue to the jury that the evidence does not support or is not consistent with the defendant’s theory of the case.”
Cheney’s appeal challenged several decisions made by Superior Court Justice William Anderson during the trial, including his decision to allow testimony to continue after jurors were approached by a man who urged them to convict Cheney and said, “don’t pull a Casey Anthony on us.”
Casey Anthony on July 5, 2011, was found not guilty of murdering her toddler by a jury in Florida. The outrage over that verdict still was being reported by the media when Cheney’s trial began less than two weeks later on July 18, 2011, Zerillo argued in his brief.
William T. Bly, the Biddeford attorney who represented Cheney at his trial, agreed with Almy that the trial should go forward after jurors were questioned by the judge and said they could make an impartial decision in the case.
“Even if the third-party statements trigger the presumption of prejudice standard, Cheney waived any objection when he elected to continue with the trial after the court questioned each juror in Cheney’s presence and asked him if he wished to proceed,” Alexander wrote.
The high court found that Anderson’s decision to continue the trial was not wrong.
Zerillo also argued that there was not sufficient evidence to convict Cheney because it was circumstantial.
“Circumstantial evidence alone is sufficient to support a conviction as long as the evidence as a whole supports each element of the crime,” Alexander wrote for the court. “At trial, the state presented evidence that pieces of grille found near the victim matched the honeycomb grille and the light assembly on Cheney’s truck.
“Cheney’s arguments are directed to the weight, not the sufficiency, of the evidence,” the justice continued. “This evidence, along with the state’s other evidence concerning Cheney’s whereabouts and intoxication, as well as the size of his truck, are sufficient to permit a rational fact-finder to find, beyond a reasonable doubt that operating his vehicle with criminal negligence, Cheney caused the death of the victim.”