Justices to hear appeals in manslaughter, clergy abuse cases in Bangor

Posted June 10, 2013, at 7:34 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Justices with the state’s highest court will consider whether a Portland man convicted of manslaughter was tricked into waiving his Miranda rights and whether a Kennebec County man’s lawsuit against the Catholic Church over alleged clergy abuse may go forward.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court will hear appeals in those cases and 10 others Tuesday and Wednesday when it convenes at the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor.

Ernest Weidul is serving a 16-year sentence in connection with the May 2010 death of Roger Downs Jr., 46, of Portland. Weidul, whose appeal will be heard Wednesday, was found guilty of manslaughter and other charges after a jury trial.

The men had just met when they spent hours together drinking coffee brandy, according to previously published reports. Jurors found that Weidul punched Downs repeatedly in the head and neck after he became annoyed because Downs’ was flicking his finger at him and poking him.

Downs died a couple of days later in the hospital, according to previously published reports.

Defense attorney Thomas Connolly of Portland unsuccessfully argued at the trial that Downs was the aggressor and Weidul reacted in self-defense.

Connolly said in his brief to the Maine supreme court that the Portland police used “bait and switch” tactics in questioning Weidul. Connolly, who represented Weidul during the trial, argued in his brief that his client was told by police they wanted to discuss a possible driving with a suspended license charge when Weidul was actually a suspect in Downs’ death.

“The deliberate impression provided to Weidul was that he was brought to the Portland police station for the operating after suspension [charge]. His motives to answer had to do with the risk of harm from the misdemeanor balanced against getting his vehicle and possessions back,” Connolly wrote in his brief. “The agreement to waive was strictly in that context because the police created the context and deliberately so.”

Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber said in his brief that “at no point did the police inform Weidul that they brought him to the police station only to question him about the operating after suspension charge for which he had been arrested.”

Macomber also argued that Weidul waived his Miranda rights and told police he was willing to answer questions.

“The police immediately told Weidul that they wanted to ask him questions about events that had transpired three day before, involving drinking with someone he had just met,” Macomber wrote. “Weidul did not object to being questioned about events unrelated to the [operating after suspension] charge; rather, he freely engaged in a detailed discourse about the events preceding and following the homicide.”

On Tuesday, justices will consider for a second time an Augusta man’s lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.

William Picher, 39, claims that the Rev. Raymond Melville, who left the ministry in 1997, sexually assaulted him between 1986 and 1988 when Picher was a student St. Mary Catholic School in Augusta. Picher (pronounced pee-SHAY) also alleges that Melville’s supervisors at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland knew the priest had sexually abused children previously but hid allegations from parishioners.

The state’s high court four years ago affirmed 5-2 that under Maine law charitable groups such as churches, museums and sports organizations are immune from claims for negligent actions, but it said they are not immune from intentional ones.

Picher’s Augusta attorneys Sumner Lipman and Benjamin Tucker claim the diocese knew Melville had a history of sexually abusing minors when in 1985 he was assigned to St. Mary’s Church and School in Augusta. The diocese has denied the claim, arguing that it did not receive its first complaint about Melville until 1990.

In the latest appeal, Picher’s attorneys argued that Superior Court Justice Donald Marden erred in granting summary judgment to the diocese and abused his discretion by refusing to permit Picher and his lawyers access to Diocese records containing the names of clergy accused of sexual misconduct and the names of their accusers.

Attorneys Gerald Petruccelli and Bradford Pattershall of Lewiston, who represent the diocese, argued in their most recent brief that Marden’s “decision was correct and should be affirmed.” The attorneys also said that there was not sufficient evidence to take the case to a jury.

While in Bangor, justices also will consider appeals concerning a transgender girl’s access to a school bathroom, the fine for illegally fishing for elvers, property disputes and parental rights, among others.

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