Maine’s high court is considering whether a North Carolina man serving a life sentence in connection with a December 2017 home invasion in Millinocket that left a local businessman dead and his wife seriously injured should be retried.
Christopher Murray, 41, of Red Springs, North Carolina, was convicted in February 2019 of murder, elevated aggravated assault and robbery.
Justices with the Maine Supreme Judicial Court met in session Wednesday at Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor for the first time in four years to hear oral arguments in the case. Newly sworn-in Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill did not join her fellow justices for Murray’s case.
Murray was one of three people charged with robbing and shooting Wayne Lapierre, 59, and his wife, Diem (pronounced “yem”) Lapierre, now 37, in the basement of their Massachusetts Avenue home on Dec. 19, 2017. Murray, who is incarcerated in his home state, maintains that he did not shoot the couple and was forced to take part in the crimes after being threatened by Tony Locklear, the father of Murray’s then-girlfriend, Alexis Locklear.
Murray maintains that Superior Court Justice William Anderson should have allowed jurors to consider whether Murray took part in the crimes under duress.
Justices focused their questions Wednesday on whether Anderson should have instructed the jury on the defense of duress.
Murray’s appellate attorney, Rory McNamara of York, told justices that Alexis Locklear’s statement to police that her father told her that if Murray did not go into the house with him, she would have no one to marry.
Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber, who did not prosecute Murray, argued that because Alexis Locklear recanted that statement when she testified before the jury, the judge did not have to instruct jurors about a duress defense. He also said that the threat, if it was made, was about going into the house to commit a robbery, not about murdering the occupants.
“There is no shred of evidence in the record that Tony Locklear said, ‘You have to go in there and kill or injure the Lapierres,’” he said.
McNamara also argued that the surviving victim misidentified him as the shooter and the judge should have allowed expert testimony on how such a traumatic event can impact a victim’s memory.
In addition, Murray claims that a life sentence was too harsh and violated the guidelines set out by the court about when a life sentence may be imposed. Those factors include multiple homicide victims, extreme cruelty used in perpetrating the crime and the premeditation of a murder.
“Our case is as extreme an example as will ever come before this court — Did [the] defendant act with premeditation in shooting the Lapierres, or was he compelled at risk of his own life to participate in a robbery in which Tony savagely and cruelly shot the Lapierres?” McNamara wrote of the sentencing in his brief. “In between these two poles lies the difference between 25 years and life.”
The lawyer also argued that jurors should decide if a conviction in a murder case should warrant a life sentence.
Macomber in his brief rejected that argument. He said the justices previously have ruled in multiple cases that judges, not juries, determine what factors justify the imposition of life sentences.
There is no timetable under which the justices must issue a decision.
Tony Locklear, 47, previously of East Millinocket and his daughter, Alexis Locklear, 25, of Maxton, North Carolina, were sentenced on March 13, 2019. Tony Locklear, who is incarcerated at the Maine State Prison in Warren, was sentenced to life in prison while his daughter was sentenced to time served — 375 days — for her limited role in the home invasion.