ROCKLAND, Maine — Franklin Higgins struck fellow prisoner Lloyd Millett with a 29-inch pipe clamp but did so in self-defense against a much larger, violent man who ran an extortion ring at the Maine State Prison, Higgins’ attorney told jurors Monday at the start of his client’s trial in Knox County Superior Court.
Higgins, 50, is charged with aggravated attempted murder in connection with the death of Millett.
The prosecution said, however, that Higgins struck Millett repeatedly in the head with the pipe clamp out of retribution for an earlier confrontation.
The trial is expected to run through the end of the week. Justice Joyce Wheeler announced to jurors Monday that the trial would not continue Tuesday because of the predicted snowstorm.
Defense attorney Philip Cohen of Waldoboro told the jurors that Millett and another prisoner Brad Chesnel ran an extortion ring at the prison and used other prisoners, who he called soldiers, to instill fear in and intimidate other prisoners.
“You had to pay rent to Mr. Millett. If you worked in the woodshop and wanted to keep your job you had to pay Mr. Millett,” Cohen said.
Prior to the confrontation on May 24, 2011, Millett had put scissors to the back of Higgins and told him to start paying or something would happen to him. Later, according to Cohen, Millett ordered Higgins to Millett’s cell where Millet assaulted the smaller inmate. Millett was 6 feet, 4 inches tall, weighed 300 pounds and spent all his free time in the weight room, the defense attorney said.
Millett, 51, was serving a life sentence for murdering two young women in Maine in 1995.
On May 24, 2011, Higgins and Millett were both working in the woodshop at the prison when Millett attacked Higgins, Cohen said. Higgins, who had a pipe clamp in his hand, then struck Millett twice in self-defense, dropped the clamp and walked away, the attorney said.
Cohen said neither of the two prison guards in the woodshop saw anything. He said two prisoners have provided statements to the prosecution but both of those statements came long after the incident and were different than initial statements given the day after the incident. They changed their stories after being assured they would be transferred to prisons outside Maine, Cohen said.
Assistant Attorney General Leane Zainea said that Higgins repeatedly struck Millett in the head with clamp out of retribution for a confrontation with Millett a few days earlier.
The prosecutor said that Millett suffered fractures to his skull and was found in a pool of blood. He was taken to the prison medical facility, transferred to Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport and then Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor where he died June 7.
The autopsy performed by the Maine medical examiner’s office also found that a contributing cause of death was heart disease, Zainea acknowledged.
There were 85 prisoners in the woodshop at the time of the incident, she said.
She said the two inmates who witnessed the attack by Higgins — Wilson Arroyo and Christopher Mull — did nothing to stop it because they knew if they got involved, they would not be safe.
Last week, Justice Joyce Wheeler ruled that the defense could not offer testimony to allege that Chesnel was an alternate suspect in Millett’s death. Chesnel is serving a life sentence for beating a man to death in a 1997 robbery at a Lewiston motel.
Chesnel did not answer questions at last week’s hearing on the advice of his attorney.
Wheeler ruled Thursday that the testimony provided at a hearing two days earlier in Knox County Superior Court did not rise to the standard necessary for an alternate suspect defense to be presented to the jury.
Wheeler said statements made by prisoners during the hearing were highly unreliable.
“At most what we have is prison gossip,” Justice Wheeler ruled in her order.
The witness lists for the defense and prosecution include many prisoners, some of whom are serving sentences for murder.
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.
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 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. 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.
Security was tight at the Knox County courthouse on Monday. A police dog was checking the building when facility opened at 8 a.m. The Knox County Sheriff’s Office also posted an officer in the courtroom along with judicial marshals and prison guards.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Leane Zainea in a photo caption. She is assistant attorney general, not assistant district attorney.