WEST BATH, Maine — Forensic psychologists for the prosecution and defense offered differing testimony on Thursday about whether a Bowdoinham teen accused of killing his grandmother in 2018 should remain in the juvenile justice system or be tried as an adult for her murder.
Dominic Sylvester, now 18, is charged with depraved indifference murder in the Feb. 26, 2018, death of Beulah “Marie” Sylvester, 55, his maternal grandmother, guardian and adoptive mother since the Maine Department of Health and Human Services placed him with her when he was 10 days old.
Assistant Attorney General Meg Elam indicated the nature of Buelah Sylvester’s death for the first time Thursday while cross-examining a witness, explaining, “She was struck repeatedly by a stick. Her head was cracked open, she had cracked ribs, bruises, and cuts and scrapes on her legs and her torso.”
A hearing to determine whether Sylvester will be tried as a juvenile or an adult began Thursday in West Bath District Court. The hearing could last as long as eight days.
Sylvester was 16 years old at the time of his adoptive mother’s death. According to court documents, at 8:50 a.m. Feb. 26, 2018, he called 911 seeking medical assistance for his grandmother. He initially told the 911 operator that he had found her unconscious and bleeding after he took a shower.
Sylvester allegedly admitted to a detective that “he had struck the victim in the head with a stick.” The detectives ended the interviews after Sylvester allegedly “made a suicidal remark,” at which point Sylvester was admitted to the hospital.
He was hospitalized for two days, then arrested.
At his arraignment in March 2018, Sylvester’s attorney, Thomas Berry, entered a “denial” on Sylvester’s behalf, which in a juvenile case is the equivalent of a not guilty plea.
Testifying for the defense, Dr. Diane Tennies said Thursday that Sylvester suffered from severe abuse by multiple adults, including his grandmother, and had lived in “an incredibly chaotic, disruptive environment” from which he finally felt he had to save himself.
Tennies said she met with Sylvester twice in the fall of 2018 and considered some 4,000 pages of records from law enforcement, treatment providers and the Department of Health and Human Services, ranging from when the defendant was 8 years old to the time of the incident.
In response to questions by defense co-counsel Meegan Burbank, Tennies said Sylvester was abused by multiple adults, had “significant boundary issues” with his grandmother, and for some time lived with her and her longtime boyfriend, whom Tennies identified as a convicted sex offender with a history of child pornography offenses.
Tennies said reports by previous clinicians indicate that the teen often slept in the same bed as his grandmother and her boyfriend, two of three adults who allegedly perpetrated the abuse.
She said Sylvester had been prescribed medications for depression, psychosis and attention deficit disorder, but that frequently the medications were not consistently available.
“At one point, he attempted to hang himself,” she said. “There was no attention paid to that … but at times he would do something minor, and he would be slapped or punched.”
She testified that at one point in 2013, clinicians at an area emergency room recommended that Dominic Sylvester receive more intense treatment, but that his grandmother would not allow it because she would miss him or wouldn’t be able to visit him in the hospital.
Tennies further testified that the Feb. 26, 2018, incident — apparently triggered by a “dispute about heat” — actually resulted from “an accumulation of events over multiple — at least 10 — years, and at that moment, for whatever reason, Dominic felt he had to assert himself.”
Tennies told the defense that she found no evidence of psychosis in Sylvester, and referred to a letter written while he was in custody in which he wrote, “I did not mean to kill my Nana … I was putting wood in the woodstove and I threw a piece at her and she died,” saying the letter seemed to represent that Sylvester could “engage appropriately” with peers.
Elam then questioned Tennies about a 12-page Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office report documenting an incident in which Dominic Sylvester was reportedly caught sexually assaulting a young child and asked her about each of “at least” 13 incidents in which the sheriff’s office responded to the Sylvester’s home for incidents related to his behavior.
She asked Tennies if she had reviewed reports of threats and assault by Dominic Sylvester; or reports from the Mt. Ararat school system that he had assaulted and threatened teachers, assaulted Beulah Sylvester, and that on one occasion, sheriff’s deputies had to wrestle a BB gun away from him after he had “destroyed the home and hit Beulah with a BB.”
Still, Tennies said Sylvester has “thrived” since being incarcerated at Long Creek Youth Development Center, away from the chaos of the Bowdoinham trailer where he grew up. She said providers found “amazing” and “significant” changes in his behavior and adjustment, and said the juvenile detention center would offer the best environment for him to continue to do so.
But Dr. Debra Braeder, Maine’s chief forensic psychiatrist who conducted Sylvester’s competence and criminal responsibility evaluations, said he does suffer from a genuine pathology, or mental illness, although she acknowledged she agrees with Tennies that he does not suffer from psychosis at this point.
“His pathology runs deep,” she said. “It’s a lifetime ingrained … Long Creek is very structured, and life is not.”
Braeder said in-home providers and the school had previously reported to DHHS that they worried he would harm his grandmother.
Braeder said Sylvester began exhibiting antisocial behavior at age 8, which she said is among a number of risk factors that cause her to be concerned that the amount of time Sylvester would remain in the juvenile justice system would not be enough for significant progress.
Questioned by the defense, Braeder said Sylvester has shown improvement at Long Creek, but that she believes his behavior there is partly because he is trying to persuade the judicial system not to try him as an adult.
“I’m saying he understands, accurately, that this is a big deal, and it would be surprising to me if he didn’t behave better, or try,” she said.
Maine law requires a district court judge to consider three factors in deciding whether to try juveniles charged with felonies as adults: the seriousness of the crime; the characteristics of the juvenile, including age, maturity and criminal history; and the sentencing alternatives available to the juvenile court.
Judges in other juvenile murder cases have given weight to how the crimes were committed, the intent of the defendants and how close they were to legal adulthood.
If Judge Beth Dobson finds that Sylvester should be tried as an adult, the case would be presented to the Sagadahoc County grand jury. If the grand jury indicted him, an arraignment date would be set, and the case would move forward toward a trial.
If Sylvester is tried as a juvenile, the case would move to a trial before a district court judge, without a jury.
A juvenile found to have committed murder can be incarcerated at a juvenile facility until no later than his 21st birthday — “not quite three years” from Thursday, Elam said.
A murder conviction as an adult carries a 25-year minimum sentence with a maximum potential term of life in prison.
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.
To reach a suicide prevention hotline, call 888-568-1112 or 800-273-TALK (8255), or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
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