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A Windham man serving a 40-year sentence for murdering his wife in 2016 claims he is entitled to a new trial, in part because his family was not allowed to be in the same courtroom at his sentencing due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Noah Gaston, 38, also says that Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy wrongly concluded that he waived his right to religious privilege when he told a third party about a conversation he had with members of his church. In addition, he claims a 40-year sentence is too long for his crime and his sentence should have been closer to the 25-year mandatory minimum.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court will hear oral arguments in his appeal remotely on Wednesday. It will be the first legal test of the coronavirus restrictions imposed in the state’s courthouses to be considered by Maine’s highest court.
Gaston never denied killing his wife, Alicia, with a shotgun blast, but maintained that he thought she was an intruder climbing up the stairs toward him in the predawn darkness. Prosecutors contended that he intended to kill his wife, and jurors agreed.
Defense attorneys Robert Andrews of Auburn and James Mason of Brunswick, who represented Gaston at his trial in Cumberland County Superior Court, said in their appellate brief that denying their motion to delay Gaston’s sentencing until coronavirus restrictions were lifted violated the confrontation clause of the U.S. Constitution, which applies to sentencings in addition to trials and ensures that defendants or their lawyers may question witnesses and confront their accusers.
The prosecution allowed the victim’s family and friends to testify by video at the sentencing last June while Gaston’s family and friends viewed the proceedings from a separate room at the courthouse to allow for social distancing. The lawyers maintain that delaying the sentencing would have harmed no one.
“Mr. Gaston was denied a critical component of the sentencing process by the [judge’s] limitations,” they said.
In addition, Gaston’s attorneys argued in their brief that the judge noted at his sentencing that there was no evidence that there was domestic violence in Noah and Alicia Gaston’s relationship before Alicia’s death.
Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber, the state prosecutor who is handling the appeal, countered that Murphy properly followed pandemic guidelines and did not violate Gaston’s rights.
“The sentencing [judge’s] method for allowing interested parties to address the court permitted Gaston to hear and see each presenter and provided the opportunity for his counsel to challenge the presenters’ remarks,” he said.
Gaston’s lawyers also argued in the appeal that Gaston did not waive his right to religious privilege when he discussed with a friend the conversation he’d had with members of his church about his wife’s death three years after her death. Murphy originally found that what Gaston told church leaders was privileged communication and could not be disclosed at trial. After the judge made that decision, Gaston told a friend what he’d told the church leaders. That conversation waived Gaston’s right to religious privilege, and allowed the church leaders to testify about what Gaston had told them, the judge found.
The church members, who picked Gaston up at the local police station the night his wife died, said that he described the shooting to them and said that he saw a figure he thought was an intruder. But he also told the men that was the only story he could tell if he wanted to see his kids again, according to the police affidavit.
Macomber said in his brief that Murphy correctly found that Gaston had waived his right to religious privilege.
Alicia Gaston’s death was considered a domestic violence homicide, but no prior evidence of domestic violence between the couple was presented at her husband’s trial or sentencing. Murphy should have given more weight to that as a mitigating rather, and imposed a lesser sentence, Gaston’s attorneys argued.
The prosecution maintained the sentence fit the crime.
“Gaston’s low-range, 40-year sentence for shooting his wife at close range with a shotgun in the abdomen while their children were in the house did not violate the federal or Maine constitutions,” Macomber said.
After Gaston’s brief was filed, a different judge in a similar case imposed a 30-year sentence as part of a plea agreement.
Dwight Jay Osgood, 39, killed Kary Dill, 35, in the Clifton home they shared on Route 9 next to the Clifton General Store on Jan. 14, 2019.
“I think the fact that there’s no history of domestic violence in this offense, in the context of a man shooting a woman in a domestic setting, is a fairly important factor,” Superior Court Justice William Anderson said in sentencing Osgood. “What we usually see is, this is the culmination of many acts of abuse over the years, but there haven’t been any representatives here in this case.”
There is no timeline under which the justices must issue a decision.