May 25, 2018
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Jury deadlocks in case that questioned how to measure a lobster

By Stephen Betts, BDN Staff

ROCKLAND, Maine — Jurors deliberated for nearly four hours over two days before deciding Thursday that they could not agree whether a Spruce Head man was guilty of possessing undersized lobsters.

The 12-member jury was faced with a decision whether there is more than one way to measure the crustacean that generated $365 million in income for harvesters in Maine last year.

How lobsters are measured became a focal point of the trial of James K. Wirkala, 38, of Spruce Head, who was charged with possession of 11 undersized lobsters.

The jurors deliberated until about 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, when they were excused for the day, and then resumed at 1 p.m. Thursday before announcing less than two hours later that they were evenly deadlocked. Justice Jeffrey Hjelm polled the jurors in the courtroom and each said that further deliberations would not lead to a unanimous verdict.

Prosecutors now need to decide whether to retry Wirkala, who faced a fine of $2,200, or drop the charges.

Maine Marine Patrol Lt. Marlowe Sonksen said that while the Marine Resources Department could suspend the lobsterman’s license for such an offense, that penalty was not sought in this case.

Wirkala was issued a summons by marine patrol officers last August while unloading his lobsters at Miller’s Wharf in Spruce Head. Sonksen and Officer Brandon Bezio checked Wirkala’s catch and determined that 11 lobsters were shorter than the 3¼ inches — as measured from the back of the eye socket to the end of the body — that is the minimum allowed by Maine law.

Assistant District Attorney Christopher Fernald said the case was not a complicated one.

Sonksen and Bezio said they both measured the lobsters and both found 11 of them to be shorter than the state limit. They testified that Wirkala admitted to them after they measured the lobsters that the crustaceans were short.

Defense attorney Edward Dardis told jurors, however, that there is a dispute between members of the lobster industry and the Maine Marine Patrol over measuring. He said that the lobsters were not short under industry standards.

Dardis questioned whether the measurement can be affected when the officer puts his finger on the end of the body and pushes on it, particularly with soft-shell lobsters, thus making it appear shorter. Sonksen said he did not push on the body.

The defense attorney also said that Wirkala did not admit the lobsters were short but contested the measurements before eventually giving up and signing the summons, preferring to wait to challenge the officers’ findings in court.

The lobsters determined by the state to be short were thrown back into the ocean.

Under questioning by the defense attorney, Sonksen did not say how close the lobsters were to meeting the minimum legal length under his measurements.

Fernald said the short lobster law is important as a conservation measure to preserve an industry that is vital to the state and particularly important to the economy of Knox County.

Only four witnesses testified during the trial — the two marine patrol officers, Wirkala and his sternman Andrew Elwell. Testimony lasted for less than three hours.

During Wirkala’s testimony, his attorney handed him a lobster so he could demonstrate the two ways he said the lobster could be measured.

Fernald said after the trial that he would consult with the district attorney and may poll the jurors once their service for the month is completed before deciding whether to try the case again.

District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau said it is difficult to read into a deadlocked verdict.

Sonksen said Thursday afternoon he was personally disappointed that the jury was unable to reach a verdict. He said he thought it was a clear-cut case.

He said he did not know immediately how many short lobster cases the department files each year.


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