HOULTON, Maine — When Assistant Attorney General Andrew Benson entered the courtroom in November to begin prosecuting George Jaime Sr. for murder, he believed he had a solid case, even though he had a big obstacle to surmount.
While Benson contended that Jaime had stabbed and beat to death his live-in girlfriend, Starlette Vining, in a drunken rage 15 years earlier, the prosecutor didn’t have the primary evidence that she was, in fact, dead.
The victim’s body was never found.
Despite that, Jaime was convicted. It was not the first time that prosecutors in the state attorney general’s office secured a conviction in a case where there was no body. But it does not happen often.
Both Benson and Deputy Attorney General William Stokes said that they could recall only two other such cases since 1980.
The first case in which a defendant was convicted of murder in Maine in which there was no corpse, no weapon and no bloodstains was in 1984. James Hicks was found guilty of fourth-degree murder, the equivalent today of manslaughter, in the death of his first wife, 23-year-old Jennie Lynn Hicks.
Buddy Robinson, 32, of Lewiston was found guilty in November 2012 of the murder of 22-year-old Christiana Fesmire, also of Lewiston.
E. James Burke, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law, said in a recent interview that such convictions are “very, very rare.”
“It’s extremely difficult to get a conviction in that instance,” he said. “In a murder case, you have to prove someone died. Well, how do you do it without a body? How do you gather enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone is dead and that the defendant in fact killed him or her?”
Benson said after the Jaime trial that he is “always worried about winning a case from the moment that I pick up the file. I never stop worrying about it. But I don’t think that there was ever any question in this case that Jaime was guilty.”
Jaime, 76, will spend the next 40 years in prison for murdering Vining, who was 38 years old when she was last seen alive in October 1998. Jaime was convicted of her murder on Nov. 15 after a four-day jury trial before Justice Robert Murray in Aroostook County Superior Court in Houlton.
The killer’s son, Ted Jaime, and his friend, James Campbell, both testified during the trial that George Jaime told them he killed Vining, dismembered her body and incinerated it in a commercial furnace in the basement of the pawn shop and apartment complex he owned on Main Street in Presque Isle. Ted Jaime also testified he saw Vining’s corpse in his father’s apartment, and both he and Campbell said they helped clean up the murder scene.
Benson said that a substantial obstacle he faced in the George Jaime case involved “corpus delicti,” a legal term meaning “the body of the crime.” He explained that to secure a conviction, he had to provide enough evidence to prove that a crime had been committed.
During the trial, Jaime’s attorney, Jeffrey Silverstein of Bangor, maintained that there was no evidence that Vining was dead and that she could “be in a coma somewhere.”
Still, Benson felt he had enough to prove the state’s case, and “the jury ruled in our favor.”
Burke, the law professor, said that in the Jaime case, he felt the testimony was powerful.
“When you have a child testifying against a parent, that is very hard to argue against,” he said. “And when you have statements from people who said, ‘Yes, I helped clean up the scene,’ or they helped dispose of the body, that is just as compelling.”
Benson also prosecuted and secured a conviction against Buddy Robinson in 2012 in Androscoggin County Superior Court.
Robinson’s victim, Christiana Fesmire, disappeared July 1, 2011. Benson contended that Robinson fought with Fesmire in her apartment from which she had been moving that morning, and smashed her head against the side of the bathtub before drowning her in the tub by sitting on her.
At the time of the trial, her body had not been found. Less than a month after Robinson was convicted, however, Fesmire’s body was recovered in the woods in Lisbon.
Robinson was sentenced to 55 years in prison in October 2013.
In 1984, a jury deliberated for nine hours before convicting James Hicks of killing his wife, who had disappeared seven years earlier. After an unsuccessful appeal to the state supreme court, Hicks served six years of a 10-year prison sentence and was released in 1990.
He moved to Texas and was arrested again in 2000 after attacking and robbing a then-67-year-old woman. Hicks was suspected of several unsolved murders in Maine and accepted a plea arrangement where he agreed to confess to three murders here and lead authorities to the victims’ remains in order to avoid facing 55 years in a Texas prison.
He led police to the bodies of Jerilyn Towers, 34, of Newport, Lynn Willette, 40, of Orrington, and Jennie Lynn Hicks. All three had been suffocated and their bodies dismembered. Jennie Hicks and Towers were buried behind his former home on Route 2 in Etna, while Willette’s body parts had been embedded in buckets of cement that were buried at a roadside site deep in the Haynesville Woods in Aroostook County.
He was sentenced to two life sentences for murdering Towers and Willette, years after the women were killed.
Stokes said recently that he was involved three decades ago in the prosecution of James Hicks for the murder of Jennie Hicks, and conducted research and helped bring evidence to a judge to convince him that the case should go before a jury. He said that it is easier to secure a conviction in such cases when there is an established relationship between the defendant and the victim.
“In the case of Jennie Lynn Hicks, she was married to James Hicks,” said Stokes. “Prior to her disappearance, she was making cupcakes for her nieces, who she was devoted to. She loved her family. It didn’t seem plausible that she’d just disappear. The same with the Jaime case. He and Star Vining were boyfriend and girlfriend and lived together. It seems funny that she’d just disappear into thin air.”
In the case of Vining, Benson said he knew he was facing a challenge bringing Jaime to trial, but also knew it was something he had to do.
“She needed justice, and so did her family,” he said. “They needed to see the person who murdered her punished, even if there was no body. Everyone deserves justice under the law.”