John D. Williams shot and killed Cpl. Eugene Cole of the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office in the early morning hours of April 25, 2018.
Attorneys on both sides of what’s expected to be a two-week murder trial acknowledged that in their opening arguments Monday morning at the Cumberland County Courthouse.
The question facing a jury of eight women and seven men — 12 jurors and three alternates — will be whether Williams “knowingly and intentionally” killed Cole.
If Williams intended to kill Cole, it was murder. If not, the charge could be downgraded to manslaughter. A murder conviction carries a sentence of between 25 years and life in prison, while a manslaughter conviction has no minimum sentence and a maximum term of 30 years.
Williams has pleaded not guilty to murder.
As he previously said he would, defense attorney Verne Paradie told the jury Monday morning Williams was so altered by heavy drug use at the time of the shooting he couldn’t have formed the intention to kill the deputy.
[Trial of man accused of fatally shooting sheriff’s deputy begins]
The prosecution used much of its opening argument girding against that defense.
Assistant Attorney General Leanne Zainea told the jurors she would call expert witnesses who would testify that gunpowder found on Cole’s neck and lead found on his uniform collar is proof the fatal shot was fired at point blank range, with the barrel of the Ruger .9 mm up against the deputy’s skin.
She followed through in part by calling Dr. Mark Flomenbaum, the state’s chief medical examiner, to testify later Monday. Flomenbaum said that because of the tight ring of gunpowder near the entrance wound under Cole’s right ear, “I knew the range of fire was very close, essentially contact range.”
Zainea said that under Maine law, Williams can be considered to have “knowingly” killed Cole if he was “practically certain that the defendant’s conduct would cause the death of Cpl. Cole.”
“We would all agree that it’s practically certain that putting a gun up to a person’s neck and pulling the trigger, the natural consequence would be that person’s death,” she said.
Zainea said Williams wasn’t so impaired by drugs on the morning of April 25, 2018, that he couldn’t recognize Cpl. Cole as one of the deputies who had arrested his girlfriend recently on drug charges — and that he was cognizant enough to realize Cole was likely there to arrest him, as well, on drug charges.
She said Williams had been selling drugs for weeks trying to raise the $5,000 necessary to bail his girlfriend out of jail.
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When given his chance to address the jury, Paradie argued that around the time of the shooting, his client had “told people he was smoking crack cocaine like he was inhaling air — in other words, he was smoking crack nonstop.”
“It’s not our defense in this case that Mr. Williams was completely blacked out and had no idea what he was doing,” Paradie said.
The defense attorney said he will call as a witness an addiction specialist who “would liken Mr. Williams’ state in that extended drug use to an animal caught in a trap. An animal might chew his leg off in order to get out of a trap without thinking about what it would be like to go on with three legs.”
The death of Cole, who was the first Maine law enforcement officer fatally shot in the line of duty in nearly 30 years, and ensuing four-day manhunt for Williams garnered intense media coverage.
In a late February-early March hearing over whether to suppress Williams’ apparent confession to police, prosecutors played a video of detectives’ interview of Williams at the time of his capture. In that video, Williams told police Cole approached him when he was trying to get into the Norridgewock home where he’d lived in the previous years.
“I didn’t want to get arrested,” he told a detective in the video. “Grabbed my pistol and pointed it at him. Just made that choice.”
Williams then went on the run. Police say he took Cole’s marked police truck from the site of the shooting at the Norridgewock home to a Cumberland Farms convenience store on Route 2, and from there, he arranged to meet a friend in a more remote area. There, Williams allegedly stole that friend’s car and cellphone at gunpoint.
Police later allegedly found Williams hiding out in a small cabin in the Fairfield woods near the Norridgewock border on April 28, 2018, after a four-day manhunt.
[Police did not beat confession out of alleged cop killer, judge rules]
Superior Court Justice Robert Mullen ruled that all but about seven minutes of the video of Williams’ 96-minute interview with detectives would be admissible at trial after defense attorneys argued police used physical violence to coerce the apparent confession.
Through the remainder of the day Monday, prosecutors called witnesses to establish a shooting and getaway timeline that wasn’t disputed by the defense attorneys.
The defense team’s brief cross examinations focused primarily on establishing that Williams was unhealthy around the time of the shooting, and that he looks very different now.
Prosecutors established a timeline around when Williams brought the stolen police truck to the Norridgewock Cumberland Farms — pulling in at around 1:40 a.m. the morning of the shooting, going inside and hastily stealing cigarettes and water, then leaving in the truck shortly after.
[Police officer said he hit accused deputy killer ‘2 or 3 times’ to get the handcuffs on]
Witnesses who testified with one vantage point or another on that sequence included the convenience store cashier working at the time, the dispatcher who took the convenience store worker’s 911 call after she recognized the truck as likely stolen, and the Maine State Police detective who later responded to the store to investigate.
Deputy Attorney General Lisa Marchese also called as a witness Lt. Kevin Adam of the Maine Warden Service, who recalled the initial search for Cole. Adam told the court he and other officers were gathered at a fire station across the street from the 16 Mercer Road home where Cole was shot. He said the woman who lived at the home started screaming when she saw the body in her yard, and he crossed the street to investigate.
“I put my fingers up to his neck to check for a pulse. He was cold to the touch. He wasn’t moving,” Adam said. “He had been deceased for a while.”
[Woman who found body of slain deputy helped raise his suspected killer]
That woman, Kimberly Sirois, also testified, saying Williams “was like a son” to her and had lived with her for years starting at the age of 13 or 14.
While neither Paradie nor fellow defense attorney Patrick Nickerson cross examined the dispatcher or game warden, Nickerson did briefly ask Sirois about whether — and how — she suspected Williams had been using drugs prior to the morning of the shooting.
“He was wicked thin,” she said. “He looked sickly.”
It was one of several cases in which the defense team left the prosecution timeline unquestioned, but tilted the discussion toward Williams’ condition at the time.
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“He was at least 50 pounds lighter, he had sores all over his face,” former friend and coworker Chris Shulenski, who’d said he met up with Williams the day before the shooting to buy cocaine, testified under cross examination. “He was like a chicken. His head was everywhere, he was all over the place.”
Nickerson asked Maine State Police Detective Hugh Landry whether the convenience store surveillance camera images — many of which were shown in court Monday — showed Williams taking food before he left.
Landry said he didn’t see Williams taking any food.
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Although he didn’t make the connection in court Monday, the question harkens back to the late February hearing, when Paradie argued the fact that Williams passed by opportunities to stockpile food or other provisions before running away into the woods for multiple days was a sign he wasn’t thinking rationally at the time.
The trial is scheduled to resume Tuesday morning.