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A Superior Court judge on Monday set bail at $25,000 cash for the Carmel man whose convictions on child sexual assault charges were overturned last month by the state’s highest court, according to the Penobscot County district attorney’s office.
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 serving a 27-year sentence at the Maine State Prison when on April 21 the Maine Supreme Judicial Court unanimously ruled that Watson was entitled to a new trial because of mistakes his lawyer made.
Watson made his first court appearance since that decision was issued on Monday before Justice Ann Murray at the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor. She set bail at $25,000 cash with conditions that he have no contact with the victim and abide by a curfew if released, according to R. Christopher Almy, assistant district attorney for Penobscot County.
Watson remained Tuesday at the jail unable to post bail.
Murray also appointed David Bate of Bangor to represent Watson at a new trial. Bate did not immediately return a request for comment on Tuesday.
The judge has not yet set a trial date. No trials are being held in May or June due to the coronavirus outbreak. It could be a year or more before the case is retried.
Prior to his trial, Watson was free on bail without incident. Almy, who prosecuted Watson in 2015, sought the high bail Monday, in part, because on Nov. 27, 2018, two months before his conviction review hearing, Watson called the victim from prison.
The prosecutor gave the judge a transcript of that call in which Watson allegedly confessed to the crimes.
Watson is accused of giving a 10-year-old female relative a cellphone in exchange for sex, watching pornographic videos with her and showing her how to use sex toys. She testified against him in 2015 when she was 10.
In the 2018 phone call, the girl, who is not being identified because she is a minor and the victim of a sex crime, said that she was dealing with substance use issues because of Watson’s abuse, according to the transcript. She also told him that he should not have gone to trial and forced her to testify.
Watson said that he had to go to trial because the prosecutor’s offer, if he’d pleaded guilty, was a sentence of 20 years, according to the transcript. He also told her that he was pursuing the conviction review so that he could get out of prison earlier “within a reasonable amount of time before my life is completely over.”
If he had lost the appeal, Watson was due to be released in 2043, the year he turns 60.
The state’s high court found that Watson’s original trial 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 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.
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.
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.