Prosecutor seeks to revoke well-known Maine lawyer’s plea deal after alleged assault

Posted Aug. 15, 2014, at 11:51 a.m.
Last modified Aug. 15, 2014, at 1:57 p.m.
Philip Cohen
Philip Cohen

WALDOBORO, Maine — A prominent Waldoboro lawyer charged in November with domestic violence assault avoided jail time through a plea bargain, but he will return to court — and could have that deal voided — after allegedly assaulting the same victim again one day after the plea agreement was granted.

Philip S. Cohen, 45, was arrested in November at his Waldoboro home after the alleged assault. In December, he was arrested again and charged with disorderly conduct and violation of bail conditions after he allegedly phoned and sent text messages to the same victim.

On July 11, Justice Roland A. Cole accepted a plea agreement in which Cohen pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct and violation of conditions of release, according to court documents. In exchange, Cole granted Cohen a deferred disposition, meaning that if Cohen complied with a number of conditions for one year, the domestic violence charge would be dismissed.

The conditions included Cohen not engaging in any further criminal conduct, not contacting the victim without the victim’s agreement and without notifying the district attorney in advance, and that he undergo a mental health evaluation with a focus on anger and violence issues.

But just more than 24 hours after the judge set those conditions, Cohen allegedly assaulted the same person again at a Jefferson camp, according to the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office. The allegation prompted Androscoggin County Assistant District Attorney Andrew Matulis to file a motion to terminate the plea agreement and deferred disposition.

In motions dated July 23 but filed in Kennebec County Superior Court a week later, Matulis wrote that there was probable cause to believe Cohen had violated the agreement “by new criminal conduct of domestic violence assault, obstructing report of a crime and violation of conditions of release.”

Matulis also asked the state to revoke Cohen’s bail.

A court date on Matulis’ requests has not yet been set, in part because of difficulty finding a judge who would not be in conflict of interest because of past dealings with Cohen in his role as a lawyer.

According to a report by Detective Robert M. McFetridge of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, the victim, the victim’s sister and the victim’s 11-year-old niece told him that Cohen assaulted the victim the night of July 12.

At one point, McFetridge wrote, he was told that during the fight, the victim called 911 from Cohen’s phone, but he hung up when it was answered and then shut it off when the emergency dispatcher called back. Phone records confirmed the calls, McFetridge wrote.

The victim’s sister told McFetridge that the victim told her that Cohen “had tried to pry [the victim’s] mouth open and place his fist in [the victim’s] mouth. … [The sister] expressed her frustration that Mr. Cohen seemed to be able to violate the law and not be held accountable,” according to the detective’s report.

The sister said Cohen had traveled outside the country twice to the victim’s home, in violation of bail conditions, to see the victim, and that on the second visit, he “broke all of the doors in her house and assaulted [the victim] with a frying pan.”

Cohen’s attorney, Walter McKee, said Wednesday that his client “denies each and every one of the allegations.”

Asked if Cohen denies going to the Jefferson camp the night of July 12, McKee said he could not discuss specific details of the case.

Matulis on Wednesday declined to discuss an active case but said he agreed to the deferred disposition because the victim had moved out of the country. The victim later said she would not be returning to the U.S. and said she wanted to drop the charges.

“That’s why we entered into the plea negotiation,” Matulis said. “We didn’t have a witness.”

He confirmed that Cohen has not been charged for the July 12 incident, but he said the district attorney’s office may still pursue charges after the motion to terminate the deferred disposition is heard.

“I don’t want to be in the same situation, so I want to have a hearing on this first to find out if I have a case,” he said.

Matulis said the court has several choices if a deferred disposition is violated, but if the court terminates the agreement, Cohen would be subject to an “open” sentencing hearing at which parties could request whatever sentence they believe appropriate within the limits for the class of the crime.

Cohen was initially charged with misdemeanor domestic violence assault. The maximum sentence for that crime is 364 days in jail.

In his statement, Detective McFetridge wrote that it “seem[ed] that [the victim] believed that no matter what happened, Philip would get away with it.”

But McKee on Wednesday argued strongly that Cohen had not been given preferential treatment throughout the case.

“They can say it all day long, but this case has been dealt with 100 percent above the board,” he said. “Mr. Cohen has been treated just like anyone else charged with a crime. Arguably, he’s been treated in a more harsh manner because no one wants anyone to think he’s being treated differently.”

The case has proved complicated for the state to prosecute because Cohen, who practices at Cohen & Cohen in Waldoboro and has represented several high-profile clients such as convicted murderers Todd Gilday and Guy E. Hunnewell, is well-known to district attorneys and judges throughout the state.

Lincoln County District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau told the BDN that he recognized when Cohen was first arrested that the case would present a conflict of interest for his office.

The Maine attorney general typically tries cases if a conflict of interest exists, according to Rushlau, but that was impossible because Cohen has represented several high-profile homicide suspects in cases prosecuted by the state attorney general’s staff.

As a result, although the initial assault took place in Waldoboro, in Lincoln County, Cohen’s case has been prosecuted in Kennebec County by Matulis, an assistant district attorney in Androscoggin County, and heard by Cole, who presides in Cumberland County.

A hearing on Matulis’ motion to terminate the deferred disposition was scheduled to take place Aug. 7 in Kennebec County Superior Court, but that hearing was canceled because the presiding judge, Dan Billings, determined he also had a conflict of interest.

Matulis and McKee said Wednesday morning that they had not yet been notified of a new hearing date, and a court clerk confirmed on Thursday that the hearing had not yet been rescheduled.

“We’re waiting to get a judge who hasn’t recused himself from the case,” Matulis said.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and would like to talk with an advocate, call 866-834-4357, TRS 800-787-3224. This free, confidential service is available 24/7 and is accessible from anywhere in Maine.

 

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