Outcomes of 2 Maine prisoner death cases raise questions as a third inmate murder case gets ready for trial
ROCKLAND, Maine — Three Maine State Prisoners have been beaten to death in less than five years but the outcomes of the first two cases have had mixed results.
On Friday, John E. Thibeault was sentenced to eight years in prison with all but nine months suspended after he pleaded no contest to a reduced charge of aggravated assault in connection to the April 2009 beating death of Sheldon Weinstein.
Weinstein’s widow said the sentence was a slap on the wrist and that justice was not served.
No one else has been charged in connection to Weinstein’s death although the state’s prosecutor said in court that witnesses reported two inmates were seen going into the cell and later talking about assaulting the victim.
In March 2013, 50-year-old Franklin Higgins was acquitted by a jury in the same Knox County Superior Courtroom for aggravated attempted murder in connection to the beating death of prisoner Lloyd Millett.
Higgins had initially been charged with murder for killing Millett but that was later reduced to the aggravated attempted murder charge after an autopsy by the Maine Medical Examiner’s Office found that Millett had heart disease that contributed to his death.
The state maintained that Higgins beat Millett with a 29-inch long pipe clamp as retribution for Millett punching Higgins a day earlier.
Higgins’ defense team argued that Higgins struck Millett with the clamp in self-defense after the much larger Millett had lunged at him in the prison workshop following two months of threats and an assault. The incident took place May 24, 2011, and Millett died June 7 after two weeks at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.
And the third case will go to trial in March. Guy E.Hunnewell III, 43, is accused of murder in connection to the June 25, 2013, beating death of fellow prisoner Alan Powell. Hunnewell was indicted in July, accused of beating the 57-year-old Powell with an electric guitar while the two were in the exercise yard. Powell died from blunt force trauma of the head, according to the medical examiner’s office.
In August, Hunnewell entered a plea of not guilty and not criminally responsible to the murder charge.
A jury is scheduled to be selected on March 7 in Knox County Superior Court with the trial set to run from March 10 through March 14.
Hunnewell was also indicted in July for a separate aggravated assault charge in which he is accused of striking another prisoner James Brensinger with a shovel on Jan. 28, 2013.
Brensinger filed a lawsuit last week in U.S. District Court against Hunnewell and the Maine State Prison for the assault. Brensinger was taken to Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport, suffering from a concussion, according to his lawsuit. He is representing himself in the lawsuit. He is asking for $60,000, saying that would make him happy.
Brensinger claims that Hunnewell was trying to kill him for no reason.
Assistant Attorney General Leane Zainea who prosecuted both the Higgins and Thibeault cases and is the prosecutor in the Hunnewell case acknowledged during Friday’s sentencing of Thibeault that one of the weaknesses of the Thibeault case was that many of the witnesses were prison inmates who had felony convictions. She declined to say after the hearing whether having prisoners as witnesses makes it difficult to get convictions in any prison death case.
In both the Higgins and Thibeault cases, prisoner witnesses changed their stories on multiple occasions, adding to the difficulty in prosecuting.
“Being labeled a rat in the prison is not something anyone there wants to be labeled,” Zainea said at Thibeault’s hearing.
The victim in Thibeault’s case was Weinstein, a 64-year-old prisoner confined to a wheelchair due to a broken leg he had suffered at the Maine Correctional Facility in Windham. He had been moved to the prison in Warren eight days before he was beaten because the corrections department considered the medical care better for him at the state prison. Weinstein was a diabetic and a brittle person, according to his widow Janet Weinstein.
Sheldon Weinstein had been sentenced to the state corrections department in October for one count of gross sexual assault against a 7-year-old. Weinstein, who had been living in Berwick before he went to prison, had been sentenced to eight years with all but six years suspended.
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.
Zainea said witnesses would have testified at Thibeault’s trial that the defendant and a second inmate had been seen going into Weinstein’s cell and then later others would report that they talked about punching him in the chest and abdomen and slamming him against the bars of the cell. Thibeault was quoted by one prisoner that he did not want a child molester in his section of the prison.
Thibeault was in prison, serving a 15-year sentence, for robbery. He completed serving that sentence in 2011, shortly after he was indicted for manslaughter in connection to Weinstein’s death. Thibeault pleaded no contest last week to the aggravated assault charge in exchange for dismissal of the more serious charge of manslaughter. The manslaughter case had been scheduled to go to trial last week.
In Higgins case, he is serving a 45-year prison term for the Feb. 27, 1999, murder of 40-year-old Katherine Poor of Kenduskeag.
The victim, Millett, 50, a Rumford native, was serving a life sentence for killing Terrie Lizotte, 39, of Canton and Rachelle Anne Williams, 33, of Gorham, N.H. The women were killed during a weekend in early November 1995 while he was a farmhand in Turner. According to Bangor Daily News archives, Williams’ body was found Nov. 6 in a field near the Ramada Inn in Lewiston, where she was attending a business meeting. She was last seen alive in a hotel lounge but disappeared after she left to go to a restroom. Williams’ raped and strangled body was found the next day.
Millett met his other victim, Lizotte, at a Turner nightclub on Nov. 3. He took her home and killed her, according to the BDN’s archives. Lizotte’s body was found by Millett’s ex-girlfriend, who recently had moved out of his home but returned to retrieve her belongings.
Millett had a lengthy criminal record before the murders, including a 1991 rape conviction for which he was sentenced to eight years in prison with four years suspended.
Higgins defense attorneys argued that Millett and another prisoner ran an extortion ring at the prison and used other prisoners, who were called soldiers, to instill fear in and intimidate other prisoners.
In Hunnewell’s case, he is serving a 40-year prison sentence for killing his estranged girlfriend Stephanie Gilliland, 20, of Benton at his Fairfield apartment in December 1997. She suffered more than 21 stab wounds in that fatal attack.
The victim, Powell had served about 22 years of a life sentence for the June 1989 stabbing and strangulation death of Martha Daigle, 64, in her Waterville home. The victim was sexually assaulted in the fatal attack.
In addition to the same prosecutor in each case, the defense attorneys are also the same team — Philip Cohen of Waldoboro and Jeremy Pratt of Camden.
In Higgins trial, the defense attorneys challenged the testimony of prisoners who were witnesses for the state for their repeated changes in their stories. Cohen used that argument on Friday at the sentencing for Thibeault.
“Almost every witness for the state is a convicted felon, which is to be expected in a prison, but they also made numerous statements, conflicting statements. And they asked what was in it for them to testify,” Cohen said.
Zainea said at Higgins’ trial that some people might say the state was wasting time and money by trying people who were already in prison, but that it was important that the law apply equally to society at large and within the walls of the prison.
After Higgins’ acquittal last year, Cohen said that while he had been somewhat familiar with what goes on within the prison, that case surprised him at how the culture of violence was accepted by the prison.
“It’s not too far off from what you see in the movies,” he said.