PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — An attorney for James Peaslee, an Easton man convicted of shooting and killing his stepfather in January 2018, presented oral arguments Wednesday to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in an appeal for a new trial for his client.
Paul Hilenski Sr., 79, died from a gunshot wound to the chest after Peaslee arrived at his home in Bridgewater and fired multiple gunshots at him, according to previous court testimony. The killing was captured by security cameras at Hilenski’s home.
Peaslee’s lawyer John Tebbetts argued Wednesday that his client should receive a new trial because of improperly admitted testimony from police officers and the court’s refusal to accept new evidence regarding the possible role of Peaslee’s brother.
Tebbetts said that the Superior Court had permitted three law enforcement officers — including Aroostook County Sheriff Shawn Gillen — to testify about the identity of the man recorded in the security camera footage at Hilenski’s home. All of the officers identified Peaslee as the man in the video.
Tebbetts said that the video was “so unmistakably clear” that the testimony was unneeded for the jury’s deliberations. He also said that the court had painted Peaslee as a career criminal by relying on the testimony of officers who had extensive previous contact with Peaslee.
Maine Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin said it was valid for the court to allow the three officers to testify, saying that the officers’ frequent contact with Peaslee made them a valuable resource for the jury.
Robbin also said that the trio’s status as law enforcement did not make their testimony inherently damaging, as they did not testify about any of their interactions with Peaslee as officers.
The second part of Tebbetts’ argument Wednesday was that the Superior Court had previously denied a motion for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence that implicated James Peaslee’s brother, George Peaslee, as the real killer.
In 2018, a woman had heard George Peaslee admit responsibility for the murder while both were purchasing methamphetamine. She reported him as saying that his brother James had been arrested for something he had actually done, according to court transcripts.
The lower court denied James Peaslee’s motion for a new trial, saying it did not find George Peaslee’s alleged confession to be trustworthy — it said that he had likely made the statement during a manic episode while not taking medication and seeking drugs.
While acknowledging George Peaslee’s mental health disorders, Tebbetts said he believed the statement was clearly made with lucidity and should have been shown to the jury.
“[George Peaslee] clearly understood where he was. He clearly appreciated the reality,” Tebbetts said.
The state argued that George Peaslee’s alleged confession “failed utterly” to meet a test of trustworthiness. She pointed to a prison psychologist who said that George Peaslee would say “outrageous” things when experiencing a manic episode, such as that his stepfather had gone to the moon with Neil Armstrong.
“The statement was not made by a reasonable person, but by a person suffering from a delusional psychosis,” Robbin said.
While being held at Aroostook County Jail in Houlton after the murder, James Peaslee had confessed the crime to fellow inmate Matthew Clark. He told Clark that he had intentionally concealed his arm tattoo during the killing to make it appear as if his brother George had committed the murder, according to court records.
Tebbetts said that George and James Peaslee are almost identical, with many similar qualities. James Peaslee is physically distinguished by an arm tattoo that his brother does not have.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court said it would consider both sides and issue a decision “in due time.”