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The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Thursday upheld the constitutionality of the pandemic restrictions the state has put in place in courthouses around the state to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Convicted killer Noah Gaston, 38, of Windham challenged the rules in the appeal of his 40-year sentence for the murder of his wife Alicia Gaston, 34, on Jan. 14, 2016. He also challenged his conviction by a jury in November 2019, before the pandemic began, on other grounds.
He claimed in the appeal that he was entitled to a new trial, in part because his family was not allowed to be in the same courtroom with him at his sentencing due to COVID-19 restrictions. Those rules include mandatory mask wearing, social distancing, entry screening questions about exposure to the coronavirus and restrictions on who may be in the courtroom and who may view proceedings remotely.
At Gaston’s sentencing last June, the judge allowed the victim’s family and friends to testify by video 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.
Gaston’s attorneys, Robert Andrews of Portland and James Mason of Brunswick, argued that the judge’s refusal to delay Gaston’s sentencing until coronavirus restrictions were lifted violated the confrontation clause of the U.S. Constitution. The lawyers argued that the clause, which ensures that defendants or their lawyers may question witnesses and confront their accusers, applied to sentencings as well as trials.
The justices disagreed and found that the confrontation clause does not apply to sentencings. They also found that Justice Michaela Murphy, who presided over the trial and sentencing, “crafted a thorough and thoughtful plan that ensured that the hearing was safely open to the public so that the case, which had been going on for four years, could finally reach a conclusion.”
“In creating this plan, the [judge] properly considered Gaston’s constitutional rights while balancing the safety restrictions needed during the pandemic,” Justice Joseph Jabar wrote for the state’s high court.
Justices also rejected Gaston’s challenge to the denial of the religious privilege exception concerning testimony by church members, as well as his argument that the sentence was too long. The punishment for murder in Maine is between 25 years and life in prison.
Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber, who handled the appeal, said Thursday that his office was pleased with the decision.
“We hope that it will bring some small measure of comfort and closure to the family and friends of Alicia Gaston,” he said.
Andrews did immediately respond to a request for comment.
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.
He is incarcerated at the Maine State Prison in Warren. His earliest possible release date is Oct. 5, 2050, according to the Maine Department of Corrections.