A Cumberland County jury of six men and six women found John D. Williams guilty of murder in the April 2018 fatal shooting of Cpl. Eugene Cole of the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office.
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.
The jurors deliberated less than three hours before handing up their verdict.
“This won’t bring Gene back,” Tom Cole, Eugene Cole’s brother, told reporters outside the courthouse after the verdict. “There are no winners in a case like this, but maybe now we can start to get some closure. Hopefully we’ll start to sleep at night again and maybe it won’t be out there as much, so maybe the wounds can start to heal.”
Deputy Attorney General Lisa Marchese, who led the prosecution, said her team is “very grateful for the thorough job the jury did in rendering their guilty verdict.”
“They obviously agreed with the state’s view of the case,” she continued. “They weren’t out that long, so we’re thrilled.”
The fact that John Williams shot and killed the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office deputy was not disputed in the seven-day trial. Rather, Williams’ defense team argued that he was so impaired by drugs at the time he couldn’t have formed the intent to kill Cole when he pulled the trigger.
“That was the defense’s only argument and we didn’t buy it,” Marchese told reporters. “We thought his actions around the time of the homicide clearly showed he intended to cause the death of Cpl. Cole.”
If jurors had agreed he didn’t intend to kill, they could have downgraded 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.
Williams, 30, had pleaded not guilty to murder. Defense attorney Verne Paradie, who represented Williams, told reporters he plans to appeal the verdict.
“I’m obviously disappointed,” Paradie said. “It’s not an entirely surprising verdict. It was a tough case. … [Williams] is obviously disappointed as well.”
Marchese reiterated to reporters that prosecutors will seek a life sentence. She said she expects the sentencing to take place in early September.
Somerset County Sheriff Dale Lancaster was in court Tuesday and emailed his department once the jury handed up its guilty verdict, said Detective Jeremy Leal.
It came as a relief to the detective, who developed a close friendship with Cole when they were partners on patrol for between 2009 and 2013. Leal was one of the first Somerset County officers to arrive in Norridgewock in the early hours of April 25, 2018, after Cole went silent on his radio, and spent the next four sleepless days helping in the massive search for Williams.
“I was in my office and the new chief deputy was with me [when I saw the verdict]. We were elated that justice was served and I’m sure that was the sentiment throughout our department and law enforcement in Maine,” Leal said Tuesday afternoon. “It’s a good day.”
Monuments have gone up and a bridge has been dedicated in Cole’s name in the year since he died, and a few Somerset County deputies even have his call number, 1312, tattooed on their bodies, Leal said. For younger deputies who saw the 61-year-old corporal as a mentor, they see his legacy in their police work.
“He really took me under his wing,” said Deputy Logan Roberts, who was supervised by Cole during his first five months with the department, after he was hired at age 22 in November of 2017. “He always told me that I should treat people at work how I’d want my parents to be treated by the police. That’s something I carry with me every day.”
During the trial, prosecutors called a range of law enforcement officers and forensics specialists to testify that, based in part on the gunpowder marks left on the entrance wound on Cole’s neck and lead found on his uniform collar, Williams shot the deputy at contact range.
Under the definitions in Maine law, defendants can be found guilty of “knowing and intentional” murder if they “can be practically certain” their actions would cause death.
“John Williams knows exactly what happens when you put a .9 mm to a person’s neck and pull the trigger,” Marchese told jurors. “The target is eliminated.”
Marchese used the term “eliminated,” because jurors heard Williams tell detectives he “eliminated” Cole in a recorded interview. Prosecutors played the nearly 90-minute video of detectives interviewing Williams on the third day of the trial.
“I pulled my pistol,” Williams says in the video. “I got the jump on him. I shot him.”
“Where did you shoot him,” one of the detectives asks.
“I shot him in the head,” Williams answers.
“The confession, in my view, was the most compelling piece of evidence in the case,” Marchese told reporters. “Once you had the confession, it was never a ‘whodunit,’ so that, to me, was the most compelling.”
The prosecution also called witnesses who interacted with Williams during the hours before and after the crime, including two current or former friends and a convenience store cashier, who testified that Williams was able to steal and drive away Cole’s police truck, among other actions.
A former friend, Christopher Williams, no relation to the defendant, testified for the prosecution that John Williams was a knowledgeable and responsible gun owner.
Prosecutors hoped those testimonies would sway the jury that John Williams was not so impaired at the time he couldn’t have understood the close-range shot would be fatal.
Marchese said during her closing argument Tuesday that the defendant’s familiarity with his firearms proved he knew how to use them lethally.
“This man knew exactly what he was doing,” she told jurors.
Paradie disputed that Williams was at “contact range” when he shot Cole, saying during his closing argument the deputy’s blood would’ve been on the handgun or the police truck steering wheel, which Williams stole after the crime, had he been as close as prosecutors said.
During the trial, defense attorneys called only two witnesses: a forensic psychology professor and an addiction specialist, who told jurors on Friday that Williams’ drug use, exhaustion, hunger and isolation made him “irrational, destructive and self-defeating” in the days leading up to Cole’s shooting.
“Nobody has claimed Mr. Williams, when you’re as high as he was, can’t function,” Paradie said during his closing argument Tuesday, adding that jurors just need to agree that Williams didn’t understand that the shot would be fatal in the “instant” he pulled the trigger in order to find him not guilty of murder.
“He told [state forensic expert] Dr. April O’Grady, ‘It was like I was watching another person … then after the shot, I snapped back into reality like a rubber band,’” Paradie told the jury.
While the two sides disagreed whether Williams knowingly or intentionally killed Cole, the timeline of events was largely undisputed.
Under the prosecution’s timeline — which went unchallenged by the defense — Williams was attempting to get into a Mercer Road home in Norridgewock in the early morning hours of April 25, 2018, where he’d previously been living.
Cole — who had recently encountered Williams on a traffic stop in which drugs were allegedly found in the vehicle and Williams’ girlfriend, the driver, was arrested — approached to arrest Williams as well.
Williams pulled away from Cole, took out his Ruger .9 mm handgun and fatally shot the deputy in the neck.
Williams then stole Cole’s police truck and went on the run, starting a nearly four-day manhunt that ended on April 28, 2019, when police found him hiding in a small cabin in the Fairfield woods near the Norridgewock town line.
Williams’ defense team sought to downplay the video of his interview with detectives, arguing that police “beat and pummeled” him after finding him in the woods and that Williams only confessed to the crime to avoid further abuse.
But Superior Court Justice Robert Mullen ruled the video was admissible after a multi-day hearing in late February-early March.
Glenn Lang of the Maine State Police said Williams was reluctant to offer his hands to be cuffed, and acknowledged on the witness stand that he hit him “two or three times” in order to get handcuffs on the suspect as quickly as possible.
Marchese said during her closing argument Tuesday that Williams was heavily armed and had already killed one police officer at the time, and that the arresting officers didn’t know whether there was an accomplice somewhere in the area. She argued the additional force was understandable under the circumstances.
Paradie told reporters he plans to appeal Mullen’s decision to allow the admission of the confession video, as well as the prosecution’s depiction of the positions Williams and Cole were in at the time of the shooting.
BDN reporter Callie Ferguson contributed to this story.