BELFAST, Maine — Citing extensive pretrial publicity, Medway businessman James B. Lee has had his vehicular manslaughter case moved to Kennebec County.
Lee, 44, was granted a change of venue when he appeared before Waldo County Superior Court Justice Jeffrey Hjelm on Tuesday.
His attorney, Jed Davis, of Augusta, argued successfully that extensive media coverage of the case, particularly Lee’s initial attempt to plead guilty, would make it difficult to impanel a jury in Waldo County.
Lee was charged after a Sept. 22, 2008, accident in Monroe that claimed the life of 28-year-old William Russell, of Medway. Russell died instantly when the truck Lee was driving left Monroe Road, slammed into two trees, and rolled over. William York, 38, of Medway, suffered a broken back in the accident, and Chad Brackett, 31, also of Medway, suffered cuts to his right arm. Lee broke his collarbone.
According to the accident report, Lee was traveling about 74 mph when his Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck left the road, which had a posted speed of 45 mph. Lee has a record of 36 traffic violations, including 25 for speeding.
In September, Lee pleaded guilty to manslaughter and aggravated driving to endanger and expected to receive a sentence of 12 years in prison with all but four years suspended, but Justice Hjelm rejected the plea bargain.
Hjelm cited the fact that Lee was “stone cold sober” at the time of the accident as his reason for rejecting the plea. While similar sentences had been given to drunken drivers, the fact that Lee was not impaired indicated an “extreme” level of recklessness for a sober person, the judge said at the time. Hjelm also cited Lee’s exten-sive record of traffic offenses as the reason he turned down the plea bargain.
After the hearing Tuesday, District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau said he agreed with the decision to relocate the trial. He said publicity surrounding the rejection of Lee’s guilty plea would have made it formidable to find a Waldo County jury panel that had no knowledge of the case’s history.
“It is realistic to assume that a large number of jurors may have heard about the guilty plea,” Rushlau said. “Kennebec County is also closer to Medway and where the witnesses are from, and the chances of getting a jury in Bangor or Dover-Foxcroft would be even worse than here.”
Lee has been free on $100,000 bail since his initial arrest and has been held under house arrest since November when Hjelm determined he violated the conditions of that bail. One of the conditions of Lee’s bail was that he refrain from driving, and a woman claimed to have seen him driving an excavator for his company, Emory Lee & Sons, in East Millinocket on Oct. 16. Hjelm found probable cause that Lee violated bail conditions after a hearing held Nov. 5.
Under the terms of the house arrest, Lee may leave home only for appearances in court, for meetings with his attorney in Bangor, or for medical appointments.
Both Davis and Marvin Glazier, of Bangor, have represented Lee since his indictment a year ago. On Tuesday, Justice Hjelm allowed Glazier to withdraw as counsel leaving Davis as Lee’s sole attorney. Hjelm adjusted the terms of the house arrest to permit Lee to attend meetings at Davis’ office in Augusta.
Hjelm informed Lee that he would attempt to schedule his jury trial for next month in Kennebec County Superior Court.