CARIBOU, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Thursday vacated a charge of unlawful sexual contact against an Aroostook County man, agreeing with the defense’s argument that a jury had not been properly instructed at the close of the original trial.
A jury convicted James P. Gantnier, 46, of Sherman in 2011 of the Class D offense and also of violating a condition of release.
Gantnier challenged both convictions on the grounds that Justice Allen Hunter declined defense attorney Jeffery Pickering’s of Houlton request to instruct the jury to consider a lesser included charge of simple Class D assault.
The Maine Supreme Court heard arguments in the case on Sept. 13.
In vacating the unlawful sexual contact charge, the justices said in their decision, “We agree with Gantnier that [Hunter] erred in denying Gantnier’s request to instruct the jury on assault (Class D) … as a lesser included offense of unlawful sexual contact [and] we vacate Gantnier’s conviction for unlawful sexual contact.”
The court upheld Gantnier’s conviction of violating a condition of his release.
Gantnier was charged in 2008 with unlawful sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl, according to the court documents.
According to the charge, Gantnier was alone with the girl, who was asleep on a couch when he touched her in what she described as “her private areas.”
For his part, Gantnier insisted he was attempting to wake the girl up by shaking her shoulder or hip and had no idea which part of her he was actually coming into contact as she was sleeping under a blanket.
“Essentially the defendant’s version was he did not sexually touch her but may have offensively touched her,” Todd Collins, Aroostook County District Attorney, said Thursday afternoon. “The Supreme Court felt the jury should have been given the option to convict on that lesser and included charge of simple assault.”
The decision, Collins said, does not exonerate Gantnier. Rather, it vacates the jury’s verdict based on a procedural error, he said, adding that his office likely will retry Gantnier on the original charge.
“We now go back to the starting line with a trial,” Collins said. “We had no problem convincing a jury beyond a reasonable doubt the first time on the [sexual contact] charge [and] we met the burden of proof.”
On Thursday Appellate Counsel Sarah LeClaire declined to comment on the possibility of a second trial but said she was pleased with the high court’s decision.
“We think it was the appropriate decision [and] the correct decision,” she said. “The real point is to make sure that trials are fair for everyone.”
Gantnier remains free on bail.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified his trial attorney. Gantnier was defended in Aroostook County District Court by attorney Jeffrey Pickering of Houlton. He was represented in his appeal, however, by Sarah LeClaire of Presque Isle.