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In a rare decision, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday unanimously overturned the convictions of a Carmel man serving a 27-year sentence on child sexual assault charges because of mistakes his lawyer made.
Richard Joseph Watson, 35, was convicted in July 2015 of two counts of gross sexual assault and one count of unlawful sexual contact, all Class A crimes, and one count of visual sexual aggression against a child, a Class C crime. He was accused giving a 10-year-old female relative a cell phone in exchange for sex, watching pornographic videos with her and showing her how to use sex toys.
Ineffective assistance of counsel is almost always argued at post-conviction review hearings but justices usually do not find that defense attorneys were at fault. The last time a conviction was overturned due to mistakes made by a defense attorney was a year ago when justices granted a new trial to Bartolo Ford, 59, of Lisbon.
The justices found that Portland attorney Daniel Lilley, who died in March 2017, should have allowed Ford to testify in his own defense about the night he led police on a chase in a dump truck. Ford rammed a police cruiser in 2008, and was shot in the hip. He sentenced to nine years in prison for aggravated attempted murder and other charges.
Ford’s retrial was to have been held in Belfast this spring but has been delayed due to the coronavirus epidemic. He remains free on bail.
On Tuesday, the justices found that Watson’s attorney, Robert Van Horn of Ellsworth, prejudiced jurors by playing the victim’s entire video-taped interview with police at the end of Watson’s jury trial. The girl, who was 10 in 2014 at the time of the alleged assaults, testified before the video was played but was not recalled to the stand afterwards for cross examination.
“The decision to provide the jury with two opportunities to hear the victim describe the alleged abuse — in a manner so consistent that even trial counsel testified at the [post-conviction] hearing that it was ‘the same’ — unnecessarily bolstered her credibility,” Justice Joseph Jabar wrote for the state’s high court.
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Defense attorneys are expected to discredit the credibility of the prosecution’s witnesses.
The defense’s trial strategy was to show that the girl made up the allegations so she could continue to live with her grandparents and not live with Watson.
Former Penobscot County District Attorney R. Christopher Almy, who prosecuted the case, said on Tuesday that he would recommend reinstating the charges against Watson for a retrial.
“We can easily try this case again,” said Almy, who did not seek re-election in 2018. “In fact, we have more evidence based on statements made by the defendant after he was sentenced [to prove his guilt].”
The final decision on whether to seek a new indictment against Watson by a Penobscot County grand jury will be made by Almy’s successor, Marianne Lynch.
Watson’s original convictions following the trial were upheld by the state’s high court in 2016, where the standard is, in part, whether court procedure was followed properly and whether judges erred in admitting evidence or in giving instructions to jurors.
The reversal came following an appeal of Watson’s post-conviction review in which his new attorney, David Paris of Bath, argued that Van Horn was ineffective at the trial.
District Court Judge John Lucy, who sentenced Watson in October 2015, found on May 30, 2019, that playing the police interview was not prejudicial to the jury and denied a motion to reverse the convictions.
Lucy must reverse his previous post-conviction review order before vacating Watson’s conviction. Lucy also will need to hold a hearing to determine whether Watson can be released on bail while awaiting a new trial.
Watson was free on bail for nearly a year before his trial.
The maximum penalty for Class A crimes is 30 years in prison. The Legislature has instructed judges to sentence defendants convicted of sexually assaulting children under the age of 12 to at least 20 years in prison. The maximum penalty for a Class C crime is five years in prison.