ROCKLAND, Maine — Maine State Prison inmates testified Tuesday as the defense attorney for 50-year-old prisoner Franklin Higgins argued that someone else was responsible for the death of another inmate nearly two years ago.
Justice Joyce Wheeler heard testimony Tuesday, before the start of next week’s murder trial, to determine whether the defense can present to the jury its theory that an alternate suspect was responsible for the 2011 death of Lloyd Millett. Wheeler said she would try to issue a ruling Wednesday.
The jury was selected Friday for the trial of Higgins, who is charged with aggravated attempted murder in connection with Millett’s death. The trial, however, is not scheduled to start until Monday.
Higgins has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The defense argued Tuesday that another inmate heard prisoner Brad Chesnel admit to beating Millett. Chesnel is serving a life sentence for beating a man to death in a 1997 robbery at a Lewiston motel.
Defense attorney Jeremy Pratt said other witnesses are terrified of Chesnel. Pratt told Wheeler that Chesnel and Millett were extorting money from other inmates.
Chesnel acknowledged during the hearing that he knew Millett, but attorney William Pagnano, who was appointed to represent Chesnel at the hearing, said his client would not answer other questions that could incriminate him.
Pratt argued that Chesnel had motive and opportunity and that the attack was the same method he used to commit the murder for which he was convicted.
Prisoner Raymond Clark said Chesnel and Millett had been part of a gang at the prison known as the “heavy hitters.” He said the gang members were larger than most prisoners and would intimidate other inmates.
Under cross-examination from Assistant Attorney General Leane Zainea, Clark said he had seen Higgins and Chesnel together.
The defense and prosecution also argued over whether a videotape of the prison industry area was valuable in the investigation. Zainea said the tape shows Higgins, carrying a pipe clamp, walking toward the wood shop area of the maximum-security prison in Warren where Millett was working. She said Higgins is seen about 30 seconds later walking away without the clamp.
The prosecutor said a pipe clamp was found next to Millett, who had been assaulted. Millett, 51, died a little more than a week later on June 7, 2011, at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.
Pratt countered that the video only shows one hallway in the very large industry area and that there were 50 prisoners in that area when the assault occurred.
Clark testified that another prisoner, Jeffrey A. Cookson, told him that Chesnel admitted to the attack.
But when Cookson testified later in the day, he denied saying Chesnel had made any such admission. Cookson said he had witnessed Millett assault other inmates.
Higgins initially was indicted on a murder charge in October 2011 in connection with Millett’s death.
The attorney general’s office presented the case to another grand jury in April 2012 and a revised indictment was issued charging Higgins with aggravated attempted murder, replacing the original murder count.
Zainea said in court last year that the revised indictment had been sought because an autopsy showed that Millett’s death may have had an unspecified contributing cause.
The defense has alleged 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 women were killed during a weekend in early November 1995 while Millett 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. 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 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 later. Police said DNA from a cigarette led to his arrest and he confessed to the crime.
Higgins is represented by Pratt and attorney Philip Cohen of Waldoboro.
The trial, with Wheeler presiding, is expected to take one week.