PORTLAND, Maine — An attorney for a Massachusetts man serving twin life sentences following his murder convictions in two New Gloucester slayings argued before the state’s highest court Wednesday that his client’s convictions and sentences should be overturned.
Clifford Strike told members of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court that Joel Hayden should not have been convicted of two counts of knowing and intentional murder. Hayden’s mental capacity was so diminished by the illegal drugs he consumed before the slayings that he didn’t have the awareness to know what he was doing and that he didn’t intend to do it. Instead, the jury should have found him guilty of the lesser charge, manslaughter, Strike said.
The sentences handed down to Hayden, 32, of New Bedford, Mass., also should be vacated because the trial judge punished him for proceeding to trial, which is his constitutional right, Strike argued.
Hayden’s 7-year-old son, Ja’kai, testified at the trial that he saw his father shoot his mother, Renee Sandora, 27, in the driveway of her home at 322 Bennett Road in New Gloucester on July 25, 2011. The boy also testified that he saw his father shoot Trevor Mills, 28, of New Bedford, Mass., in a doorway at the New Gloucester home.
Mills, Hayden’s friend, was supposed to help him move out of the house that day.
Strike said prosecutors offered Hayden a life sentence before his trial. He was left with little choice but to proceed to trial, Strike said. And for that he was punished at sentencing.
Justice Andrew Mead quoted Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills, who presided over Hayden’s trial, reminding Hayden that he shouted to his son in the courtroom as his son stepped down from the witness stand: “Ja’kai, Daddy loves you!”
Mills said: “I can only suggest to you, Mr. Hayden, that actions speak louder than words.”
At Hayden’s sentencing, Justice Mills took into consideration the impact on the victims of the slayings, including their effect on Hayden’s son, Mead said. She referred to a social worker’s report that concludes the boy will “always have a sense of responsibility for having put his father in jail as a key witness on that tragic day.” The social worker suggested that the boy would be further traumatized if he were to take the stand at his father’s trial.
Mead asked Strike whether he concluded from that exchange that Mills was punishing Hayden for seeking a trial.
“Are you seriously arguing that she penalized him for exercising his right to go to trial?” Mead asked. “Do you take those words as saying, ‘Mr. Defendant, you exercised your right to go to trial and that kind of makes me mad so therefore I’m going to sentence you to more time.’ She didn’t say anything of that sort, did she?”
“No judge,” Strike said. “And I didn’t take it that way.”
Strike said neither he nor Hayden knew whether prosecutors would call Ja’kai as a witness because there was sufficient evidence against Hayden without the boy’s testimony.
Justice Ellen Gorman ticked off many factors introduced against Hayden at his trial. She noted he had an extensive criminal history, and that he made a statement a day before the slaying saying he intended to kill Sandora. He had practiced shooting a .45 caliber handgun consistent with the slugs found in the victims. He had killed two people, one with cruelty. (Sandora spoke to a dispatcher on a 911 call saying she was being shot in front of her children, identifying Hayden.) And, Gorman concluded, Hayden had been a felon with a gun.
“Could anything other than two life sentences have been imposed in this case?” Gorman asked.
Speaking as a defense attorney, Strike said that any life sentence is “not necessarily appropriate.”
Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber said Ja’kai was called as a witness because his testimony, as an eyewitness to the shooting, was enough in itself to convict Hayden and earn him two life sentences.
Justice Mills didn’t hold that against Hayden, Macomber said, noting that she had even remarked that he had a right to go to trial.
Macomber said the jury at Hayden’s trial heard testimony about the illegal drugs he had ingested. But they also were informed that he was able to shoot two people after loading and reloading a gun. And he led police on a car chase that reached speeds of up to 100 mph and included evasive maneuvers before he finally crashed in the Saco-Biddeford area.
Sandora’s family, who took custody of her four children after the slayings, attended the law court hearing Wednesday.