John D. Williams was living in fear of attack by gang members at the time he shot and killed Cpl. Eugene Cole more than 13 months ago, a witness told the court Tuesday.
Christopher Williams, no relation, testified as a former friend of John Williams on the second day of what’s expected to be a two-week murder trial. He told the court John Williams sold drugs and that his dealer was a man from Connecticut known as Orlando.
Under cross examination by defense attorney Verne Paradie, Christopher Williams said John Williams feared Orlando would order gang members to hurt him in jail if he were to be arrested.
“I believe that he was threatened by Orlando,” said Christopher Williams.
He told the court that John Williams called him after the shooting and admitted to the crime: “He told me Gene snuck up behind him, that he turned around and he shot him, and that he was worried the police were going to kill him.”
The notion of gang influence is a new angle in a case that has been almost entirely aired out in the media since the April 25, 2018, shooting.
However, prosecutors on Tuesday sought to stamp out any notion that John Williams, impaired by heavy drug use and terrified of lurking gang members, might have shot Cole in a moment of mistaken identity.
Christopher Williams told the court he and John Williams had both used crack cocaine “heavily.”
“Even though you were using crack cocaine heavily, were you able to make decisions,” asked Assistant Attorney General Leanne Zainea. “Were you able to identify who you were talking to?”
Christopher Williams answered “yes” to both questions.
“Does Eugene Cole look anything like Orlando, sir,” the prosecutor asked.
“No ma’am,” he answered.
The fact that John Williams shot and killed the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office deputy is not being disputed in the trial. Rather, Williams’ defense team is seeking to prove that he didn’t knowingly or intentionally kill Cole — if jurors agree he didn’t intend to kill, they could be allowed to downgrade the charge from murder to manslaughter.
A murder conviction carries a sentence of between 25 years and life in prison, while a manslaughter conviction has no minimum sentence and a maximum term of 30 years.
John Williams, 30, has pleaded not guilty to murder.
Paradie has argued his client was so impaired by drugs at the time of the shooting he could not have formed the intent to kill. To that end, he highlighted it Tuesday when Christopher Williams testified John Williams sounded “shocked” and “surprised” when he called to say he’d shot Cole.
The defense team has argued primarily that in his drug-impaired state, John Williams was only able to think about avoiding jail — where he allegedly believed he would be attacked by gang members — when he encountered Cole, not killing.
“It’s not our defense in this case that Mr. Williams was completely blacked out and had no idea what he was doing,” Paradie said during Monday’s opening argument, but rather that Williams was so impaired by drugs he was like “an animal caught in a trap — an animal might chew his leg off in order to get out of a trap without thinking about what it would be like to go on with three legs.”
Prosecutors on Monday called the chief medical examiner to testify that, based on the gunpowder found near the entrance wound on Cole’s neck, the shot was fired at “contact range.”
Zainea said that under Maine law, Williams can be considered to have “knowingly” killed Cole if he was “practically certain that the defendant’s conduct would cause the death of Cpl. Cole.”
“We would all agree that it’s practically certain that putting a gun up to a person’s neck and pulling the trigger, the natural consequence would be that person’s death,” she said.
The death of Cole, who was the first Maine law enforcement officer fatally shot in the line of duty in nearly 30 years, and ensuing four-day manhunt for Williams garnered intense media coverage.
Fellow Somerset County Sheriff’s Deputy Isaac Wacome testified Tuesday he and Cole pulled over Williams’ girlfriend on April 21, 2018 — less than a week before the shooting — and that Cole arrested her after finding drugs in the car.
Witnesses who were close to Williams testified on Tuesday that the drugs belonged to Williams, and that he was upset his girlfriend was arrested when they weren’t hers.
Prosecutors — supported by testimony from friends and police Tuesday — have argued Williams was facing gun charges in Massachusetts and had been selling drugs to raise bail money for his girlfriend when Cole went to arrest him in the early morning hours of April 25, 2018.
Williams was attempting to get into a Norridgewock home where he’d previously been living when Cole approached to arrest him on drug charges. Williams pulled out his Ruger .9 mm handgun and fatally shot him in the neck at close range.
“I didn’t want to get arrested,” Williams later told a detective in a recorded interview played for the court in an early March hearing. “Grabbed my pistol and pointed it at him. Just made that choice.”
Williams then went on the run. Police say he took Cole’s marked police truck from the site of the shooting at the Norridgewock home to a Cumberland Farms convenience store on Route 2, and from there, he arranged to meet Christopher Williams in a more remote area. There, after unsuccessfully trying to convince Christopher Williams to drive him away or give up his car, he fled into the woods.
“He told me he was going to go into the woods to call and make a confession to help [his girlfriend] out and then he was going to kill himself,” Christopher Williams, who said he gave John Williams his cellphone, testified Tuesday.
Police later allegedly found Williams hiding out in a small cabin in the Fairfield woods near the Norridgewock border on April 28, 2018, after a four-day manhunt.
The prosecution timeline of events is largely unchallenged by the defense.
Throughout the day Tuesday, prosecutors called witnesses to speak to one aspect or another of that timeline, including five investigators from the Maine State Police, one deputy from the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office and another friend of Williams, who testified that Williams called him in the early morning hours after the shooting.
“He had just told me that he had messed up and that he was sorry,” longtime friend Tom Scott testified. “He told me that if the police came to talk to me, to tell them that the drugs they had found on [his girlfriend] were his.”
The trial will resume on Wednesday morning at the Cumberland County Courthouse.