Jurors in the murder trial of John D. Williams saw the accused killer naked and pinned to the ground by police in the Fairfield woods Wednesday.
On the third day of what’s expected to be a two-week trial for the fatal shooting of Cpl. Eugene Cole, prosecutors brought witnesses and photographs showing the capture of Williams on April 28, 2018, after a nearly four-day manhunt.
They also played an approximately hour-and-a-half video of Williams’ apparent confession recorded soon after that capture, in which he describes to detectives the fateful encounter with Cole and says: “I shot him in the head.”
The trial is less about whether Williams shot Cole — attorneys on both sides have agreed that happened — but rather about whether he intended to kill the Somerset County Sheriff’s deputy when he did so.
If the jury finds he knowingly or intentionally killed Cole, they can find him guilty of murder, which carries a sentence of between 25 years and life in prison. If jurors believe he was too impaired by drugs to have formed the intent to kill, as his defense attorneys are arguing, they may be allowed to instead convict him of manslaughter, which has a maximum sentence of 30 years and no minimum term.
Police say they apprehended Williams in a small, secluded cabin near the Norridgewock border after following tracks from the suspect’s last known location and learning from helicopter searchers that the one-room structure was nearby.
The accounts of Williams’ capture provided by law enforcement officers Wednesday were similar to those given during a late February-early March hearing on a previous motion in the case.
Glenn Lang of the Maine State Police testified Wednesday, as he did in late February, that he hit Williams in the face once he and other officers had him down on the ground. Lang said Williams was slow to give up one of his arms to be cuffed.
“I was always taught … the most likely time for someone to do something bad to you is when you first get to them,” he testified. “I struck him two or three times on the side of the head, and said, ‘Stop resisting.’ He said, ‘OK, OK.’”
Lang testified that he was concerned there might be another person in the cabin — police would later determine there was not — and that Williams might have a firearm tucked into the long johns he was wearing.
“I needed to get his hand up there [to be cuffed] as quickly as possible,” he said.
Lang also testified Williams was stripped of the long johns he was wearing — he was already shirtless and not wearing shoes when he was found: “He had defecated himself from his leg all the way down to his ankle.”
Maine Game Warden Kristopher MacCabe testified Wednesday that, after he helped initially subdue Williams and checked the cabin for an accomplice, he came back outside and took a picture of Williams’ naked body, pinned to the ground. That photograph was shown to jurors for reference multiple times Wednesday.
He told the court he took that photo, as he had others that day, because “it was a crime scene.”
The issue of another controversial photograph of Williams was also discussed. Shortly after he was apprehended, Lang testified that police off-site requested a photo to confirm Williams’ identity. He said he picked Williams’ head up by his hair for the picture, which would go on to be widely circulated by media outlets and social media, but criticized by some as a “trophy photo.”
Lang, as he testified in late February, said Wednesday Williams was told to pick his head up for the photograph, but refused, tucking his chin down. Lang said he picked the suspect’s head up by the hair because he didn’t want to put his hand down near Williams’ mouth, where he could be bitten or be exposed to a “communicable disease.”
Defense attorney Verne Paradie argued in late February that police beat and intimidated Williams at the time of his capture, and that he only confessed to the shooting because he was afraid of additional abuse.
Superior Court Justice Robert Mullen previously ruled that most of the confession could be admitted as evidence in the trial, despite Paradie’s motion to block it. However, defense attorneys can still try to convince jurors comments Williams made to detectives — particularly those that undermine their case that he didn’t intend to kill Cole — shouldn’t be believed.
Video of that apparent confession was played on a large screen in court Wednesday afternoon. In it, Williams is seen brought into a white room, his hands cuffed behind his back, wearing no shirt and what appears to be a yellow blanket wrapped around his waist.
Maine State Police Detective Jason Andrews, who was on the witness stand as the video played, offers for Williams to be supplied food, water and clothing. Police then recuff his hands in front of his body and read him his Miranda rights, stopping after every few words to ask if he understands what they mean.
Williams agrees to answer their questions, and goes on to tell detectives he was trying to get into his “stepmom’s house” when Cole arrived and told him he was under arrest.
“I pulled away from him when he was trying to arrest me,” he says in the video, adding: “I just instinctively grabbed my pistol and pointed at him. I just made that choice.”
After further questioning, Williams tells the detective, “I pulled my pistol. I got the jump on him. I shot him.”
“Where did you shoot him,” the detective asks.
“I shot him in the head,” he answers.
In response to additional questions, Williams says that Cole was on the ground, because he’d slipped, when Williams shot him.
The comments Williams makes in the video match up with the prosecution’s timeline of events, which is largely unchallenged by the defense.
After shooting Cole in the early morning hours of April 25, 2018, prosecutors say Williams stole his police truck and went on the run, starting a nearly four-day manhunt.
Prosecutors on Wednesday called several Maine State Police forensic specialists to testify about aspects of the case. Those witnesses included chemist Alison Gingras, who said she tested Cole’s uniform shirt for blood stains, and DNA expert Jennifer Sabean, who said DNA at least partially matching that of Williams was found on a water bottle collected at the site of the shooting and pistol found at the cabin.
Kimberly James, a scientist from the Maine State Police crime lab, said ballistics tests matched the casings of the bullets that killed Cole and broke a window at the Fairfield cabin to the Ruger that carried Williams’ partial DNA. She also testified that lead concentrated on the right collar of Cole’s uniform shirt “does tell me that the gun was fired in a very close proximity.”
Prosecutors hope to prove that the fatal shot was fired from contact range, where Williams could be “practically certain” it would cause Cole’s death, thus qualifying as “knowing” under Maine law and by extension, murder.
The trial is scheduled to continue Thursday morning at the Cumberland County Courthouse.