ROCKLAND, Maine — The first of two trials this year of Maine State Prison inmates accused in connection to the death of fellow prisoners is scheduled to begin next month.
The trials are expected to highlight violence within the state prison.
The trial of Franklin A. Higgins is scheduled to start March 18 in Knox County Superior Court. The 50-year-old Maine State Prison inmate is accused in connection to the death nearly two years ago of fellow Maine State Prison inmate Lloyd Millett.
Higgins was initially indicted for murder in October 2011 in connection to the death of Millett. Higgins pleaded not guilty to that charge.
The attorney general’s office again presented the case to a grand jury in April and a revised indictment was issued, charging Higgins with aggravated attempted murder. This replaced the murder charge.
Assistant Attorney General Leane Zainea said in court last year that the revised indictment was being sought because an autopsy showed there may have been another contributing cause to the death. She did not specify what the contributing cause was and calls made this week to the Maine medical examiner’s office were not returned.
Higgins also pleaded not guilty to the revised charge which also carries a potential maximum sentence of life in prison.
The 51-year-old Millett died June 7 at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor after being assaulted May 24 at the prison, according to state police at the time of the time of the incident. The state alleges that Higgins used a pipe clamp to beat Millett.
In paperwork filed in court, the defense is claiming that evidence provided by the state indicates that Millett was extorting funds from other inmates.
In particular, the defense alleges that Millett threatened to use force or used force against Higgins.
Millett, a Rumford native, was serving a life sentence for killing Terrie Lizotte, 39, of Canton and Rachelle Anne Williams, 33, of Gorham, N.H. The killing of the two women occurred over the course of a weekend in early November 1995 while he was a farmhand in Turner. According to Bangor Daily News archives, Williams’ body was found Nov. 6, in a field near the Ramada Inn in Lewiston, where she was attending a business meeting. She was last seen alive in a hotel lounge but disappeared after she left to go to a restroom and never returned. Williams’ raped and strangled body was found the next day.
Millett met his other victim, Lizotte, at a Turner nightclub on Nov. 3. He took her home and killed her, according to the BDN’s archives. Lizotte’s body was found by Millett’s ex-girlfriend, who recently had moved out of his home but returned to retrieve her belongings.
Millett had a lengthy criminal record before the murders, including a 1991 rape conviction for which he was sentenced to eight years in prison with four years suspended.
Higgins is at the state prison where he is serving a 45-year prison sentence for the 1999 killing of Katherine Poor inside her Kenduskeag home. A Penobscot County jury convicted Higgins in January 2001 of Poor’s murder.
Poor was stabbed multiple times in her Route 15 apartment just outside Kenduskeag Village on Feb. 27, 1999. Higgins, who lived in Corinth at the time, was arrested two weeks after the murder. Police said he confessed to the crime and DNA from a cigarette also led to his arrest.
The scene of Millett’s death was the wood shop at the maximum security prison in Warren.
In a civil lawsuit filed last month by former Maine State Prison deputy warden James O’Farrell, O’Farrell said he had voiced his concerns to the warden and corrections commissioner concerning lack of staffing, particularly in the woodshop. O’Farrell stated in his lawsuit that Millett was attacked and murdered by other inmates who beat the victim with a large, threaded metal rod in the wood shop. He said only three officers were in the woodshop. In the lawsuit, O’Farrell said he spoke to Prison Warden Patricia Barnhart after the murder and said that this was specifically what he was concerned would happen.
Higgins is represented by attorney Philip Cohen of Waldoboro.
The trial is expected to take one week. Justice Jeffrey Hjelm has been assigned to preside over the case.
The Higgins trial is the first of two involving deaths at the prison. The second one is scheduled to be held in October, also in Knox County Superior Court.
John E. Thibeault, 33, of Orono is charged with manslaughter in connection to the April 20, 2009, death of 64-year-old fellow inmate Sheldon Weinstein.
Thibeault is free on $100,000 surety bail and was released from prison in September 2011 after he completed his sentence for robbery.
The indictment alleges that Thibeault acted recklessly or with criminal negligence that led to Weinstein’s death. Police said at the time of Weinstein’s death that the prisoner died from a beating at the hands of other inmates.
Thibeault has been the only person charged in connection to the death.
At the time of his death, Weinstein — who was serving a two-year sentence for sexual assault against a child — was confined to a wheelchair after falling out of bed and breaking a leg. He was transferred to the Maine State Prison in Warren from the Maine Correctional Center in Windham eight days before his death in order to receive better medical care.
One guard was fired and another demoted as a result of an internal investigation by the prison.
Motions filed by attorney Cohen, who along with attorney Jeremy Pratt represents Thibeault, claim that the prison guard who was fired had solicited other inmates to assault Weinstein. The motion states that the guard “did not appreciate Mr. Weinstein being in his pod because Weinstein was a convicted sex offender.”
The motion also lists a third prison guard — who was not one of the two employees named by the state as being disciplined after Weinstein’s death — who was placed on leave and then fired as a result of an investigation by the state. This third guard is believed to have been the last person to see Weinstein alive, according to the motion.
The defense also has asked for videos from the section of the prison where Weinstein was in the days leading up to his death. The videos are being sought because the defense believes other inmates may have assaulted Weinstein.
Weinstein’s wife, Janet, filed a notice of intent to sue the Maine Department of Corrections for her husband’s death. The notice was filed in 2009 but no lawsuit has yet been filed.
The Weinstein’s notice of claim stated that “the policy makers within the Maine Department of Corrections were deliberately indifferent to a culture of inmate violence in which jailhouse justice was meted out to inmates like Mr. Weinstein.”
The potential suit has been on hold pending the completion of Thibeault’s criminal trial.