Maine supreme court upholds convictions in 2009 Webster Plantation slayings

Posted Nov. 29, 2012, at 3:55 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 29, 2012, at 8:31 p.m.

The state’s highest court on Thursday upheld the convictions of a Burlington man charged with the 2009 slayings of a Webster Plantation couple who ran a pawnshop and loan operation from their trailer.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court affirmed Justice William R. Anderson’s ruling that the taped confession of then-31-year-old Nathaneal K. Nightingale, other statements and some physical evidence were appropriately allowed into his trial.

Nightingale’s attorney, Hunter J. Tzovarras of Bangor, claimed that Nightingale’s confession was inadmissible. Nightingale, he argued, was in police custody at the time, the confession was not freely given and evidence gathered as a result of it was tainted.

But the court’s affirmative judgment stressed that Nightingale had voluntarily submitted to the nine-hour lie detector session. Detectives twice read Nightingale his Miranda rights and told him at the beginning and end of the session that he could leave at any time.

“Although there are factors that could support the conclusion that Nightingale was in custody, in particular the duration of the interrogation, the most compelling factor leans the other way: Nightingale terminated the marathon interview after the detectives accused him of committing the killings,” the 25-page ruling states.

“At this point, he said he wanted to consult with a lawyer. He left because he decided to leave and the police officers let him leave. On these facts, the trial court did [not] err at any time,” the ruling states.

A Penobscot County jury in March 2011 found Nightingale guilty of manslaughter in the death of Michael Miller Sr., 47, but found him guilty of intentional or knowing murder in the death of Valerie Miller, 47. The killings were part of a botched robbery attempt.

Nightingale is serving 40 years in prison on the murder charge and 15 years for manslaughter, with the sentences running concurrently. The state supreme court heard his appeal in September.

Nightingale was arrested in December 2009, a few weeks after the Millers were found dead in the kitchen of their Tucker Ridge Road home on Nov. 29, 2009. The deaths were ruled homicides the next day.

Detectives determined shortly after their investigation began that Nightingale was among the last to see the Millers alive. When police contacted him, Nightingale told them a woman had come to the Millers’ house just as he was leaving on the day they were killed. Detectives then asked if he would be willing to take a polygraph exam and he agreed, according to the ruling.

In the appeal, Tzovarras argued that, under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Nightingale was entitled to a “minimum 14-day waiting period between the time the suspect is released from custody and when the police can re-initiate interrogation after the suspect initially invoked his or her right to counsel.”

The police, Tzovarras said, failed to give Nightingale the 14 days when they gave him a polygraph exam at the Criminal Investigation Division offices in the Dorothea Dix building on Hogan Road in Bangor on Dec. 11, 2009, then questioned him at his home several hours later.

The police, Tzovarras said, also employed an illegal two-step interrogation procedure in violation of federal law — eliciting a confession, administering Miranda warnings, and then obtaining a post-warning confession, according to the ruling.

However, the court ruled the 14-day argument moot because Nightingale was not in custody during the polygraph exam. Nightingale voluntarily took the nine-hour test, went home and was visited several hours later by detectives who had been told that Nightingale had confessed to his mother and a friend and might be suicidal, the ruling states.

Detectives read Nightingale his Miranda rights before and after the polygraph examination and again at his house, the ruling states. The court also ruled that Nightingale made his statements at his home voluntarily and that police were not following a “Miranda in the middle” strategy when they visited his home.