PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday unanimously affirmed the murder conviction of a Lewiston man but found that the prosecutor, who is now a District Court judge, engaged in misconduct during the trial.
Buddy Robinson, 34, is serving a 55-year sentence at the Maine State Prison in Warren in connection with the 2011 death of a neighbor, 22-year-old Christiana Fesmire.
The appeal was filed in 2014. Justices heard oral arguments in May 2015 at Cumberland County Courthouse.
Efforts to reach attorneys in the case were unsuccessful Tuesday.
Robinson was convicted by a jury in November 2012 in Androscoggin County Superior Court in Auburn, according to a previously published report. Fesmire’s remains were recovered two months later in woods in Lisbon.
Fesmire disappeared on July 1, 2011. Robinson was arrested and charged with her murder more than three months later.
The victim rented a first-floor apartment in the building where Robinson lived upstairs with his sister and her young son, the report said. The jury found that Robinson fought with Fesmire that first day in July in her apartment, from which she had been moving. Her head was smashed against the side of the bathtub, then he drowned her in the tub by sitting on her, a previous report said.
Adam Sherman, the Lewiston attorney who handled Robinson’s appeal, argued that then Assistant Attorney General Andrew Benson unfairly prejudiced the jury with his prosecutorial misconduct. Sherman also argued that Robinson was denied a fair trial by Superior Court Justice MaryGay Kennedy’s responses to the jury’s request for a read-back during its deliberations.
The jury reached a verdict before the readback could be prepared for them, Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Jeffrey Hjelm said in the 26-page decision.
According to the court’s opinion, Benson said sarcastically during his closing statement to jurors: “I’ve been a criminal prosecutor here in the state of Maine pretty much for all of the last 25 years, the last 13 doing exclusively homicide trials for the attorney general’s office, and, strangely enough, when it comes to trial, I’ve always been wrong. I’m always wrong. We never get the right person. And, as [defense counsel] told you in his opening statement, once again, we’ve made a mistake. We’ve gotten the wrong person.”
Hjelm said in the opinion that in his closing, Benson incorrectly tried “to present himself as the voice of experience and to then assure the jury that the same defense raised here has been fruitless in other cases and therefore also should be fruitless in this case. Such an appeal to the jurors consists of an improper call for them to predicate a verdict based on information that goes beyond the evidence presented to them.”
The justices concluded that in his appeal “Robinson has not established that the state’s improper argument affected the outcome of the case.”
The justices also rejected Robinson’s other argument in the appeal.
During its deliberation, the jury asked for a transcript of a witness’ testimony. The judge, in a note, told jurors they could not have a transcript but could hear a readback of testimony, the decision said. Because the transcript of the testimony was 90 pages long, she asked if jurors could be more specific about what section of the testimony they wanted to hear. The jury responded, “All of it.”
Kennedy did not abuse her discretion as a judge to ask again for them to narrow down the testimony they wanted to hear, Hjelm wrote.
What, if any, impact the court’s finding would have on Benson’s judicial career could not be determined Tuesday afternoon. Phone calls to the board that oversees the conduct of attorneys and the one tasked with enforcing the Judicial Code of Conduct were not returned before deadline.
The Board of Overseers of the Bar would consider any complaint, if one were to be made, over Benson’s behavior as a prosecutor. Since he is now a judge, the matter might be considered moot.
It is highly unlikely the Committee on Judicial Responsibility and Disability, which is overseen by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, would consider a complaint over Benson’s conduct as a prosecutor.
The justices’ findings would not be considered a complaint. Robinson or his attorney would have to file a complaint for either the board or the committee to consider it, according to the separate rules that govern both bodies.