Dominic Sylvester confers with lawyers during a recess in his hearing at West Bath District Court, in West Bath, March 21, 2019. A judge has ruled that the teenager, accused of killing his grandmother last year, will be tried as an adult. Sylvester was 16 when Beulah "Marie" Sylvester was found unconscious inside their Bowdoinham, Maine home. He was initially charged as a juvenile. But a judge's ruling last week means Sylvester, now 18, will be tried as an adult on a charge of depraved indifference murder, which carries a sentence of 25 years to life. Credit: Ben McCanna | Portland Press Herald via AP

A Bowdoinham teen charged with murder in the February 2018 death of his grandmother will be tried as an adult, a superior court justice has ruled.

Dominic Sylvester, now 18, was 16 when his maternal grandmother, guardian and adoptive mother, Beulah “Marie” Sylvester, 55, was found unconscious Feb. 26, 2018, in the Bowdoinham mobile home the two shared.

He was charged with depraved indifference murder and entered a “denial” — the juvenile equivalent of a not guilty plea. Sylvester has been held at Long Creek Juvenile Detention Center in South Portland since he was charged.

His attorneys, Thomas Berry and Meegan Burbank, petitioned the court to have him tried as a juvenile. He was subsequently evaluated by forensic experts for the state and the defense.

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According to court documents, Beulah Sylvester had been Dominic Sylvester’s legal guardian since the Maine Department of Health and Human Services placed him with her when he was 10 days old.

Dominic Sylvester called 911 at 8:50 a.m. on Feb. 26, 2018, 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.

But in an affidavit filed by detectives, Sylvester allegedly admitted to them that “he had struck the victim in the head with a stick.”

During a four-day hearing in late March in Sagadahoc County Superior Court before Judge Beth Dobson, Assistant Attorney General Meg Elam, who is prosecuting the case, shared details about the nature of Buelah Sylvester’s death for the first time 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.”

Testifying for the defense, Dr. Diane Tennies said 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 Sylvester 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 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.

Tennies said Sylvester had “thrived” since being incarcerated at Long Creek, away from the chaos of the Bowdoinham trailer where he grew up.

But Elam asked Tennies about reports of threats and assault by Sylvester, 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.”

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.

Braeder said Sylvester began exhibiting antisocial behavior at age 8, and said she was concerned that the amount of time Sylester would remain in the juvenile justice system would not be enough for significant progress.

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.

On Thursday, Dobson issued her ruling, finding that Sylvester’s attorneys failed to establish that trying him as an adult would be inappropriate.

The case will be forwarded to a Sagadahoc County grand jury.

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.

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