Former inmate to serve nine months for prison assault that led to death

John Thibeault sits at the defendant's table on Jan. 9 in Knox County Superior Court moments before pleading no contest to aggravated assault in connection to the 2009 beating death of fellow prisoner Sheldon Weinstein. Pictured with Thibeault are attorneys Philip Cohen, center, and Jonathan Handelman.
Stephen Betts
John Thibeault sits at the defendant's table on Jan. 9 in Knox County Superior Court moments before pleading no contest to aggravated assault in connection to the 2009 beating death of fellow prisoner Sheldon Weinstein. Pictured with Thibeault are attorneys Philip Cohen, center, and Jonathan Handelman.
Posted Jan. 17, 2014, at 5:09 p.m.
John Thibeault
John Thibeault

ROCKLAND, Maine — A former Maine State Prison inmate was sentenced Friday to nine months in jail for his role in an April 2009 beating that led to the death of another prisoner.

The widow of the man who died told the judge that she was stunned by the sentence, which she called a slap on the wrist. She said she still does not have the answers she sought about her husband’s death and that the sentence provided no justice.

John E. Thibeault, 34, was sentenced to eight years in prison with all but nine months suspended and placed on probation for three years for aggravated assault in connection with the April 20, 2009, death of fellow prisoner Sheldon Weinstein, 64.

Weinstein’s widow, Janet Weinstein, addressed Justice Jeffrey Hjelm before he imposed the sentence. Parameters of the sentence had been agreed to by the prosecutor and defense attorney as part of a plea deal filed with the court last week.

Since the first telephone call from the prison — informing her that her husband had died of natural causes — Weinstein said the process has been frustrating and painful.

Her husband was a brittle diabetic who was confined to a wheelchair, she said. He did not expect much from the Maine Department of Corrections other than not being killed, his wife said.

The widow also took aim at Thibeault during her statement, saying it took a damaged person to attack someone in her husband’s condition.

“Before you leave this earth, I hope the universe will pay you back,” she said.

In 2009, Janet Weinstein filed a notice of intent to sue the state for its role in her husband’s death. 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 notice indicated she would seek more than $1 million in damages.

The potential suit has been on hold pending completion of Thibeault’s criminal case. Weinstein’s attorney, Scott Gardner of Biddeford, could not be reached Friday to determine whether he would now move forward with the suit.

Assistant District Attorney Leane Zainea said Friday that the state agreed to the sentence based on several factors. She said many of the witnesses for the state would have been Maine State Prison inmates who had given varying accounts of what they saw or heard leading up to or following the assault. There were no eyewitnesses to the assault in Weinstein’s cell, she said.

Some of Weinstein’s blood was found on a sneaker suspected of belonging to Thibeault but its ownership was unconfirmed, adding to the difficulty in proving the case against Thibeault if it had gone to trial, the prosecutor said.

She said there also was no evidence that Thibeault meant to kill Weinstein.

Defense attorney Philip Cohen said that it was just as likely that Thibeault would have been acquitted if he had gone to trial. He said the only nonprisoner who was near Weinstein’s cell around the time of the assault identified two people acting suspiciously near the cell and neither was Thibeault.

Thibeault pleaded no contest last week to the aggravated assault charge in exchange for dismissal of the more serious charge of manslaughter that he had been indicted on in July 2011. The manslaughter case had been scheduled to go to trial last week.

Zainea said last week that if the case had gone to trial, three prisoners would have testified that Thibeault and another inmate admitted that they had gone into Weinstein’s cell and struck him repeatedly in the head and on his torso. One prisoner would have testified that he saw Thibeault and the other inmate speak to a prison guard on duty before going into Weinstein’s cell.

Thibeault and the alleged accomplice told another prisoner after the assault that they had received permission to “beat up the old guy,” according to Zainea. That witness also would have testified that he heard Weinstein screaming in his cell during the assault.

Thibeault also told another prisoner that he had struck Weinstein with three to four body blows because Weinstein was in prison for sexually assaulting a child and “those people did not belong in this world,” Zainea said.

The prosecutor said Friday she would not comment on whether the second prisoner — who was suspected of participating in the attack — would be charged.

After the assault, Weinstein was transferred to administrative segregation. He was observed by a nurse on the day of the assault and no visible injuries other than a few bruises could be seen.

But on April 24, four days after the assault, Weinstein was found dead in his cell.

The state medical examiner’s office determined in an autopsy that Weinstein suffered a delayed rupture of his spleen. He also had rib fractures and bruising on his brain. The cause of death was determined to be blunt force trauma.

At the time of his death, Weinstein was serving a two-year sentence on a conviction for one count of gross sexual assault against a child. Because of a broken leg, he had been moved from the Maine Correctional Facility in Windham to the Maine State Prison in Warren eight days before the attack so he could receive more medical care.

After an internal investigation into the attack by the prison, Corrections Officer Joshua Bailey was terminated and Sgt. William Robinson was demoted to correctional officer.

Thibeault finished serving a 15-year sentence for robbery in September 2012 and was released after making bail on the manslaughter charge. He lived in Brewer for a while but was sent back to jail in early October 2013 after failing to attend a hearing on this case. Defense counsel Jeremy Pratt estimated his client would have another six months to serve.

 

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