Sharon Kennedy, the mother convicted of murdering her 10-year-old daughter, Marissa Kennedy, listens to the prosecution speak at the Waldo Judicial Center in Belfast during her sentencing hearing in February 2020. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

If you are concerned about a child being neglected or abused, call Maine’s 24-hour hotline at 800-452-1999 or 711 to speak with a child protective specialist. Calls may be made anonymously. For more information, visit maine.gov/dhhs/ocfs/cw/reporting_abuse.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Thursday upheld the conviction and sentence of Sharon Kennedy, the mother serving a 48-year prison term for her role in the 2018 beating death of her 10-year-old daughter in Stockton Springs.

Lawyers for Kennedy, formerly Carrillo, 36, argued in their appeal to Maine’s highest court that Superior Court Justice Robert Murray should have considered Kennedy a victim of domestic violence at the hands of her former husband, Julio Carrillo, and given more weight to how Kennedy’s low IQ and intellectual disability affected her behavior and allowed for manipulation by her husband.

The high court rejected Kennedy’s arguments in a 4-1 opinion.

The intense abuse Marissa Kennedy suffered, which came to light after her death, shook people around Maine and beyond and focused intense scrutiny on the state’s child welfare system. It spurred a series of state investigations into the system as well as efforts to overhaul it.

Chris MacLean of Camden, who represented Kennedy at her trial in December 2019 in Waldo County, said that Murray should have suppressed Kennedy’s confession to police as involuntary, instructed the jury that she may have been under duress when she participated in the abuse of the girl and that as a victim of domestic violence she could not have acted as an accomplice.

Under Maine law, the definition of duress does not specifically include being a victim of domestic violence and Murray did not include information about duress in his jury instructions.

A majority of justices — Ellen Gorman, Thomas Humphrey, Andrew Horton and Catherine Connors — rejected MacLean’s arguments after hearing oral arguments remotely in November. Justice Andrew Mead did not participate in the case.

“Although there was evidence presented at the trial from which the jury reasonably could believe that [Kennedy] was a victim of physical abuse, psychological abuse, and controlling behavior by her husband, there was no evidence that [Kennedy] was subjected to any specific threats of imminent harm or force by which [she] was compelled to commit the acts that caused Marissa’s death,” Gorman wrote for the majority. “Rather, even when viewed in the light most favorable to [Kennedy], the evidence, at most, demonstrates the same type of generalized abusive atmosphere that we determined [previously] to be insufficient to generate a duress instruction.”

Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin told the justices during remote oral arguments in November that Murray handled the case properly. She praised the justices’ decision Thursday.

“The Maine State Police and the Attorney General’s Office worked tirelessly to achieve justice for Marissa,” Robbin said. “We are pleased that a majority of the law court recognized that both the guilty verdict and 48-year sentence were warranted in this horrific case of child abuse. Sharon Carrillo’s efforts to evade liability for her role in the death of her 10-year-old daughter have failed.”

MacLean did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling.

Justice Joseph Jabar dissented, saying that Murray should have declared a mistrial because testimony about Kennedy’s alleged confession to Shawa Gatto, which for the first time included an allegation that Kennedy also sexually abused her daughter, was prejudicial. Gatto, 46, was sentenced to 50 years for the murder of 4-year-old Kendall Chick in Wiscasset in December 2017, just months before Marissa Kennedy’s killing.

The information about the alleged confession came during an exchange between a prosecutor and Dr. Sarah Miller, head of the Maine Forensic Service, the last witness to testify before closing arguments. She listened to an interview with Gatto in which the alleged confession was discussed. Gatto did not testify.

“The issue before us is whether [Kennedy] received a fair trial, not whether she is guilty of the crime,” Jabar said. “Given the exceptionally prejudicial nature and timing of the testimony, I believe that [Kennedy] did not receive a fair trial.”

The majority agreed with Jabar that Miller’s statements were inadmissible hearsay but found that MacLean had “overstated the harm to her defense effort.”

Julio Carrillo pleaded guilty to murder and is serving a 55-year sentence at a prison in New Hampshire but remains in the custody of the Maine Department of Corrections. Kennedy and Gatto are incarcerated at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham.