ROCKLAND, Maine — The jury trial of a former Maine State Prison inmate accused of beating another prisoner to death more than four years ago has been postponed until at least January after the defense said it was provided with a “mind-boggling” amount of evidence at the 11th hour.
Defense attorney Jeremy Pratt asked Justice Jeffrey Hjelm at a hearing Thursday in Knox County Superior Court to dismiss the manslaughter charge against 34-year-old John E. Thibeault. He said the failure to get evidence such as 90 witness statements makes it difficult for the defense to be prepared in time for the expected start of the trial on Monday.
Pratt said dismissal was warranted in this case. But he also asked the judge to consider excluding the statements from any of the approximately 90 witnesses as an alternative sanction against the state.
And at a minimum, the defense said the trial should be delayed for at least two months and Thibeault should be released on bail.
Pratt argued that in cases that involve the prison, the state corrections department has on multiple cases withheld evidence until the eve of trials. In the Thibeault case, some of the statements are more than four years old and were not turned over until this week.
“Until a case is dismissed, they won’t see the need to provide the evidence,” Pratt said.
Justice Hjelm on Thursday postponed the trial but did not immediately rule on the request for dismissal of the charge or on excluding witness statements. He also did not rule on bail for Thibeault, who remains incarcerated.
Pratt said that among the statements provided to the defense during the past week — some as late as Wednesday — are ones from a possible alternative suspect, the dismissal letter of a former prison guard who was found to have encouraged prisoners to go after the victim in this case, and interviews with Thibeault.
Assistant Attorney General Leane Zainea, who is prosecuting the case, said she turned over evidence once she received it from the state corrections department. The prosecutor said dismissal of the case was too extreme a measure to take in this case.
Assistant Attorney General Diane Sleek, who represents the corrections department, said she provided statements that had even remote relevance to the case.
Thibeault was serving a 15-year sentence for robbery when he was indicted on a manslaughter charge in July 2011 in connection with the April 20, 2009, death of fellow prisoner 64-year-old Sheldon Weinstein, who was serving a two-year prison sentence for sexually assaulting a child. Thibeault was freed in September 2012 after he finished his sentence and made bail on the manslaughter charge.
Thibeault, however, is back in jail after he failed to attend a hearing on the case last month.
Weinstein’s wife, Janet, filed a notice of intent to sue the Maine Department of Corrections for its role in her husband’s death. The notice was submitted in 2009 but no lawsuit has yet been filed. Weinstein’s notice of claim stated that “the policymakers 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 completion of Thibeault’s criminal trial.
Pratt detailed some of the documents turned over this week including the dismissal letter to the former guard, dated Sept. 1, 2009, by then-Corrections Commissioner Martin Magnusson, who said the guard was fired because he instigated, facilitated and encouraged prisoners to injure another inmate. Pratt said that inmate was Weinstein. Another document was a statement from a prisoner who said he had spoken to Weinstein’s cellmate who allegedly said he had beaten up a guy in a wheelchair. Weinstein was confined to a wheelchair.
“Clearly this is someone who would be an alternate suspect,” Pratt said.
Thibeault is also represented by attorney Philip Cohen.