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CARIBOU, Maine — In a majority opinion published on Thursday, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court sent a sexual assault case against a former Caribou substitute teacher back to the lower court for resentencing following his appeal.
Caribou police arrested Colby Conroy — a Caribou Career and Technical Center substitute teacher — on May 26, 2017 and charged him with gross sexual assault, unlawful sexual touching and sexual abuse of a minor after receiving a complaint on that day from officials within the school district.
The incidents unfolded starting May 22, 2014. Conroy had added a 15-year-old student to Facebook during school hours — but after his class with her was over — and the two communicated throughout the day. The next day they met at a store in Caribou, he drove her home and they exchanged sexual messages and exchanged nude photos later that night.
One day later, Conroy picked the student up at her home and took her to a movie, after which he drove her to a secluded area where the sexual act, sexual contact and touching occurred.
In August 2018, Conroy was found guilty in Aroostook County Superior Court in Caribou on four of seven charges related to sexual misconduct with a 15-year-old: gross sexual assault, unlawful sexual touching, unlawful sexual contact and sexual abuse of a minor.
A charge of sexual assault was dismissed as it focused more on compulsion and force and two unlawful sexual contact charges were dismissed due to overlap with the third count.
District Attorney John Pluto said at the time the case was “unprecedented” in the state of Maine, as it involved a substitute, not a full-time, teacher.
Conroy then appealed the case in October 2019 arguing that, for the conviction of “sexual abuse of a minor,” he believed the victim was at least 16 years old and the court had not met its burden of proof. The higher court found that the burden of proof was met and that “even if Conroy actually believed the student was at least 16 years old, his belief was unreasonable.”
The opinion also agreed with the lower court’s assertion to maintain on the “unlawful sexual touching” charge. The only contested aspect of this charge was whether Conroy was technically a school employee at the time. The lower court found that he was still — albeit in a limited capacity — an employee of the school at the time, to which the higher court agreed.
But the Maine Supreme Judicial Court disagreed that there was sufficient evidence for the gross sexual assault and unlawful sexual contact convictions. Conroy again asserted in his appeal that there was not enough evidence for the court to find that the state had proved each element of these offenses beyond a reasonable doubt.
For these two charges, the only contested issue was whether Conroy specifically had “instructional, supervisory, or disciplinary authority over the student” at the time.
Conroy argued that the state did not prove he had this authority at the time of the incident.
“We agree with Conroy that the court’s analysis reflects an incorrect reading of the applicable statutory language,” the opinion said. “By their plain language, the statutes, which employ the term ‘having’ in the present tense, require nothing less than that, at the time of the sexual contact, the actor have instructional, supervisory, or disciplinary authority over the student.”
The higher court argued that, for these specific crimes, grooming that began when Conroy had authority over the student and sexual contact on a later date are not proof enough that the “authority continued to exist.”
With the Law Court finding that two of the four charges could not be sufficiently proven, they determined that resentencing is necessary.
The Law Court’s instructions for the trial court were to determine if this would have an impact on the sentences for the charges of sexual abuse of a minor and for unlawful sexual touching. If so, the higher court instructed the lower court to resentence Conroy for the two convictions after a new sentencing hearing “at which both Conroy and the state have the opportunity to be heard.”
Four supreme court justices were in the majority in the Law Court opinion: Chief Justice Leigh Ingalls Saufley and justices Ellen Gorman, Andrew Mead and Thomas Humphrey. Justices Donald Alexander and Joseph Jabar were dissenting.
The full opinion is publicly available on the State of Maine website.