The man convicted in June of murdering Cpl. Eugene Cole and leading hundreds of police officers on a four-day manhunt through Somerset County last year should spend the rest of his life behind bars, according to prosecutors.
Defense attorneys, on the other hand, believe that 40 years in prison will be enough to punish John D. Williams for his crime and protect the public from another outburst of violence.
Superior Court Justice Robert Mullen, who presided over Williams’ seven-day jury trial, is set to sentence him at 1 p.m. Thursday at the Cumberland County Courthouse in Portland. Williams will become the second person in 30 years sentenced for the killing of an on-duty law enforcement officer in Maine.
Maine does not have the death penalty, so Williams, 31, of Madison, faces between 25 years and life in prison for the April 2018 shooting of Cole. Under a 1990 state Supreme Court decision, Williams’ offense — murdering an on-duty law enforcement officer — is one of seven that qualify a criminal for a life sentence.
Deputy Attorney General Lisa Marchese and Assistant Attorney General Leane Zainea called Cole’s murder on April 25, 2018, in Norridgewock, as he tried to arrest Williams on a drug charge, “especially atrocious” in their sentencing memorandum filed in court. Williams “stood over Cpl. Cole, placed a gun to his neck, and shot him execution-style at point-blank range,” they wrote.
“The state asks that this court send a clear message that violence against law enforcement officers in the line of duty is never acceptable and will be met with the strongest possible sentence,” the prosecutors said.
They also said that Cole’s murder “created wounds in the hearts of many people that will never fully heal.”
“Moreover, by killing a police officer in a relatively peaceful and quiet community, he undermined that entire community’s sense of security,” they wrote. “For days after Cpl. Cole’s murder and while the defendant was still at large, the entire county was on heightened alert. Cars were stopped at roadblocks, school was cancelled, and doors to homes were locked, while police canvassed the road and fields and helicopters flew above searching for John Williams. His actions have forever changed the tranquility of Somerset County.”
Defense attorneys Verne Paradie and Patrick Nickerson argued in their sentencing memorandum — as they argued at the trial — that Williams’ heavy use of crack cocaine and heroin, severe lack of sleep and his fear of returning to jail impaired his decision-making abilities. He did not intentionally kill Cole, they said.
They also claimed that Williams feared being killed by “an enforcer” of his out-of-state drug supplier.
“Williams had been especially paranoid since he stole crack cocaine and heroin from his Connecticut supplier in hopes he could sell it quickly and use the proceeds to bail his girlfriend out of jail,” Nickerson said in the memo. “At the same time, Williams had an upcoming court date in Massachusetts, where he’d recently been incarcerated for the first time as an adult and been the victim of a sexual assault.”
Prosecutors countered that Williams’ drug use should be considered an aggravating factor that would increase his sentence rather than a mitigating one that might lessen it.
“John Williams was in and out of rehab and never committed himself to sobriety or employment,” they said. “His efforts at employment were dismal as evidenced by his work history at Job Corps. Because John Williams supported his own drug habit by addicting and supplying friends with drugs, he perpetuated a cycle that should not be considered a mitigating factor. While drug addiction is widely recognized as an illness and some people experiencing addiction deserve compassion, this particular defendant’s addiction is not worthy of mitigation.”
Nickerson countered that Williams has been a model prisoner and has transformed himself physically and emotionally while being held without bail at the Cumberland County Jail in Portland. He has earned trustee status and extra privileges in exchange for completing chores and other tasks. William also has taken part in Bible study and substance use disorder counseling groups.
If sentenced to life, Williams never would be eligible for release. If he were sentenced to a number of years, Williams potentially could earn up to five days a month off his sentence for good behavior.
The last person sentenced for shooting and killing an on-duty law enforcement officer was Nicolo Leone. A jury found him guilty of manslaughter in the shooting death of Lewiston Police Officer David R. Payne on July 23, 1988. Leone also was found guilty of two counts of attempted murder because he shot at the two officers who arrived to assist Payne.
At the time, the maximum penalty for those crimes was 20 years in prison. The judge sentenced Leone to a total of 60 years in prison by imposing the maximum sentence on each count and ordering Leone to serve them consecutively rather than at the same time. Leone died of cancer in 1999 while incarcerated, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, a website that tracks officers who have died in the line of duty.
Cole was the 29th Maine law enforcement officer to be killed by gunfire in Maine since the early 19th century.
The first Maine law enforcement officer to be fatally shot was Washington County Deputy Sheriff John Tileston Downes, according to the Officer Down website. He was fatally shot Jan. 28, 1811, by Ebenezer Ball in Robbinston.
Downes was shot as he approached Ball’s house to arrest him on a currency counterfeiting charge. Ball was found guilty of murder and executed by hanging Oct. 31, 1811, nine years before Maine became a state.
The Maine Legislature first abolished the death penalty in Maine in 1876, but it was reinstated in 1883. It was abolished a second and final time in 1887 after a botched execution two years earlier.