AUBURN, Maine — A Lewiston man facing up to 30 years in prison was freed from jail Monday after the victim of a barbecue-fork stabbing — in an action rarely seen in court — invoked on the witness stand his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Most Androscoggin County courthouse workers said they had never seen that happen before.
Tony Elwood Leonard, 43, formerly of 88 Bartlett Street, had been indicted on a charge of elevated aggravated assault, a Class A felony punishable by up to 30 years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000.
Police said Leonard stabbed the victim in the chest with a large, two-pronged barbecue fork with such force that it scraped his aorta during a fight in October. The victim was hospitalized in critical condition after the injury.
The declaration at trial by Vincent Wayne Turner, 42, appeared to take everyone in the courtroom by surprise, especially the prosecutor, who quickly asked for a sidebar conference with the judge and defense attorney.
Turner had been the prosecution’s first witness in what was expected to be a two-day trial. Shortly after he was sworn in as a witness, Turner was asked whether he knew Leonard. Turner said he’d known Leonard a “long time” and called him a friend. Asked to identify him in the courtroom, Turner invoked the Fifth Amendment.
After the judge sent the jury from the courtroom, Turner was halfway to the back door when Assistant District Attorney Lisa Bogue asked him whether he wanted an attorney. Turner declined the offer, but later spoke with local defense attorney George Hess.
When court resumed later that morning, Bogue said the victim was no longer willing to cooperate with the state as a witness. She said he hadn’t given any prior indication that he might not be able or willing to testify and had been cooperative with investigators and prosecutors right up until trial.
She proposed changing the assault charge to a Class D misdemeanor. After pleading “no contest,” Leonard was sentenced to 228 days in jail, the time he had served since his arrest in connection with the incident. He also was convicted on a charge of violating condition of release and sentenced to 10 days, already served.
Bogue later said she didn’t know why Turner felt he needed to remain silent on the witness stand.
“I can tell you in my 10 years of doing this, I’ve never had a witness surprise me with” invoking the Fifth Amendment on the witness stand, she said.
“If I had known ahead of time, I probably would have had him get (legal) counsel so we could have prepared dealing with this issue before a jury was empaneled and sitting in the courtroom,” Bogue said.
She said Turner had met with attorneys who took the case to an Andrsocoggin County grand jury last year. He also had talked to Bogue at least twice by phone and met with her twice, most recently on the morning of the trial.
“From my perspective, this was an important, serious case and I guess I’m just disappointed that we weren’t able to follow through,” she said.
The state had witnesses placing Leonard at the scene, making an admission and experts confirming the presence of Turner’s blood on his clothes, she said.
Leonard’s attorney, Henry Griffin, later said, “neither the state nor I had any — any — expectation that the . . . victim in the case was going to basically refuse to cooperate with the state. You can’t predict something like that.”
Griffin said he suspected Turner would be a “reluctant” witness and had planned a self-defense case because Leonard and Turner were the only two people in the room at the time of the assault and both were drunk.
Investigators found “dozens of empty beer cans” and an empty bottle of cheap wine in the room where the assault had taken place, Griffin said. Police also found a screwdriver and a “sharp implement on the floor right next to the victim,” so Griffin planned to present the case as self-defense, he said.
“You can’t predict it’s going to work out this way,” he said. “There’s just no way.”