ELLSWORTH, Maine — A Lamoine woman was acquitted Thursday morning in Hancock County Superior Court of charges that she helped her husband steal a safe containing an estimated $40,000 in cash and jewelry from his grandmother.
Juanita Mullins, 36, and Steven Robbins, 39, were accused of entering the victim’s home on Buttermilk Road in Lamoine on the night of Jan. 22, 2005, putting a pillowcase over her head, handcuffing her, tying her legs together with a telephone cord, and demanding to know the combination to the safe, which she kept in her closet.
Police said the couple left Connecticut, where they lived at the time, on a Friday night, drove to Lamoine, stole the safe and then drove back to Massachusetts by 9 the next morning.
The couple was being tried together for the crime.
Robbins still is facing charges including robbery, burglary, assault, kidnapping in connection with the case. A jury of five women and seven men deliberated for three hours Thursday afternoon on whether Robbins is guilty before Justice Kevin Cuddy granted their request to be allowed to go home and return today.
Mullins’ attorney, Steven Juskewitch of Ellsworth, and Robbins’ attorney, Theodore Fletcher of Southwest Harbor, each made verbal motions Wednesday for Cuddy to acquit their clients. There is no direct evidence linking their clients to the crime scene, the defense attorneys argued, and therefore no way for the jury to meet the state’s minimum standard of finding the defendants guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Cuddy granted Juskewitch’s request to acquit Mullins but denied Fletcher’s request to acquit Robbins.
Juskewitch said Thursday that acquitting his client was the right thing to do. Mullins had acknowledged she was in Maine the night of the robbery, but testified that she and Robbins were visiting friends in Kittery, he said. The state could not come up with any direct evidence that indicated Mullins came any closer to Lamoine that night.
“Justice Cuddy is correct,” Juskewitch said. “She is innocent. There was no way, based on the evidence, that she could be found guilty.”
Hancock County Deputy District Attorney Carletta Bassano, the prosecutor in the case, said she disagreed with Cuddy’s decision to rule in Juskewitch’s favor and to acquit Mullins.
“The justice has made a decision and I accept it,” Bassano said.
The victim in the case, who was 74 years old at the time, testified earlier this week that she woke up the night of the robbery with a pillow being held to her face. Two intruders had entered the house and, after restraining her, threatened to kill her Chihuahua if she didn’t tell them the combination to her safe. She also said the intruders eventually let her sit up in bed and to breathe from a nearby oxygen tank that she uses to manage her asthma.
The intruders left with the safe around 4 a.m., and after 15 or 20 minutes, the victim was able to free her legs, get out of bed and then alert a neighbor by yelling out her front door and repeatedly flicking on and off a porch light.
The safe was never recovered.
After Cuddy granted Juskewitch’s motion to acquit Mullins, she testified Thursday morning as a witness in her husband’s defense.
Bassano had suggested that Mullins and Robbins had been struggling financially up until the time of the robbery. The couple was making $80,000 a year between the two of them, paying $1,000 a month in rent, supporting five children, and Robbins was behind by $5,000 in child support payments, according to Bassano.
But Mullins denied they were having financial problems.
“We were fine,” Mullins testified. “We were doing very well, actually.”
Under questioning by Bassano, Mullins acknowledged on the stand that she later told police she had not been in Maine that weekend but also that she was not good at remembering dates. She also acknowledged, but without further explanation, that her husband’s initial claim that he had bought a truck from his boss for $3,800 turned out not to be true, and that they spent $1,400 on an engagement ring for Mullins after the robbery occurred.
In her closing arguments Thursday morning, Bassano told the jury that Robbins lied to police about how he had bought the truck after the robbery. Instead of paying his boss $3,800 for it, Robbins had paid $15,000 in cash for the vehicle, she said. He also had lied to police and said he was not in Maine the weekend of the crime, she said, even though his debit card statements later revealed he had bought gas in Kittery a few hours before the robbery.
“Why try to hide that fact?” Bassano said. “Why didn’t he tell the police what he had been doing?”
The prosecutor also said that somehow, Robbins had known the burglars let the victim sit up in bed and use her oxygen tank. Robbins had told an acquaintance he was glad the robbers eventually had shown relative kindness to his grandmother before his grandmother remembered and talked to anyone about this aspect of the crime, Bassano said.
“He knew because he was there, or he talked to someone who was there, and that person wasn’t [his grandmother],” Bassano told the jury. “This defendant is guilty of what happened.”
In his closing remarks, Fletcher said that just because Robbins was in Kittery a few hours before the crime and because he spent thousands of dollars in the days after the robbery does not mean Robbins tied up his grandmother and stole the safe. The state cannot place Robbins at the crime scene or even near Lamoine when the crime was committed, Fletcher said, and it stretches belief to suggest he drove hundreds of miles north on a dark and snowy night, did everything the burglars did, and then drove back to western Massachusetts in less than 10 hours.
“It’s just not possible,” he said. “There’s no direct evidence in this case. It doesn’t meet the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt.”