BELFAST, Maine — There were eight days of testimony from dozens of witnesses, experts who spoke about false confessions and disturbing home videos that pulled the curtain back on the abuse happening to both Sharon Carrillo and her daughter inside the family’s home.
But none of that could negate the powerful effect of listening to Sharon Carrillo’s own words as she talked to police detectives about how she and her husband, Julio Carrillo, tortured 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy to death in February 2018. After less than five hours of deliberation on Wednesday afternoon, a Waldo County jury found the 35-year-old mother guilty of Kennedy’s murder.
Carrillo, who cried after the jury of eight men and four women returned the verdict, is expected to be sentenced Feb. 7. She faces up to life in prison.
“We love you,” her aunt, Debbie Ferris, called to her from the courtroom as Sharon Carrillo, standing between her two attorneys, wept.
For state prosecutors, the verdict was another step toward achieving justice for Kennedy, whose child abuse death shook people around Maine and beyond and focused intense scrutiny on the state’s child welfare system. It also set a series of state investigations and other efforts to protect vulnerable Maine kids.
“This little girl was tortured for months,” Assistant Attorney General Don Macomber said outside the courthouse, adding that since her death, investigators and prosecutors have made her case a priority. “We’ve been dedicated to one thing — that is bringing justice to Marissa Kennedy.”
That process began in August, he said, when Julio Carrillo, 52, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 55 years in prison, and will continue with Sharon Carrillo’s sentencing.
“Julio Carrillo is going to die [in jail] for what he did to Marissa Kennedy,” Macomber said. “It’s our full intention to seek a life sentence for Sharon Carrillo. She cast herself as the victim. The jury, by its verdict, rejected that finding.”
But Sharon Carrillo’s family members said after the verdict was returned that justice is not the word they would use to describe what happened at court that day. The Sharon Carrillo they know is a sweet, intellectually limited woman with an IQ of 70, who was vulnerable to both her violent, controlling husband and the police detectives who interrogated her.
“She’s guilty because of her low intellect — not because she was a mean person at all,” Roseann Kennedy of New Windsor, New York, said of her stepdaughter. “She was taken over by a mean husband who controlled her.”
Her father, Joe Kennedy, said that the detectives should have realized Sharon Carrillo needed a lawyer from the beginning.
“They knew. They knew they were dealing with somebody who was intellectually challenged,” he said. “They browbeat an intellectually challenged woman.”
Defense attorney Chris MacLean of Camden said he will appeal the jury’s decision, and one of the grounds for appeal is that Justice Robert Murray did not instruct the jury on the doctrine of duress — the idea that people might engage in criminal conduct because they are afraid.
“Our theory all along is that Sharon was going along with what Julio said because bad things were happening to Julio and Sharon back at the house,” he said before the verdict was announced. Afterwards, he said he was disappointed but respected the jury’s work and verdict.
“We’re not done fighting for Sharon Carrillo,” he said.
For prosecutors, the six hours or so of Sharon Carrillo’s audio and videotaped conversations with detectives, which took place shortly after Kennedy’s death, were all they needed to prove her guilt. Jurors heard and watched those conversations, which included a videotaped tour of the condominium in which Sharon Carrillo demonstrated to detectives how she and Julio Carrillo would punish Kennedy.
“Why on earth would anyone admit they beat a child to death unless they were involved?” Assistant Attorney General Leane Zainea asked the jury Tuesday. “Your common sense tells you that what Sharon Carrillo first told the detectives is who she is. She is the mother of Marissa Kennedy, who routinely beat her daughter until her heart [stopped working].”
At first, Sharon Carrillo and her now-estranged husband, Julio Carrillo, maintained to police that the girl had somehow fatally injured herself in the basement where she had gone to watch the movie “Despicable Me.” But as first responders examined Kennedy’s body, they saw bruises and old and new injuries that were inconsistent with the story told by the Carrillos.
It did not take long before Julio Carrillo, and then later Sharon Carrillo, told Maine State Police detectives a different narrative that included harrowing details of torture and abuse that began after Thanksgiving 2017 and lasted until her death a few months later. The Carrillos told police they would punish Kennedy by having her kneel naked on the tile floor in the kitchen and beat her with their hands, a belt and a metal mop so hard that the handle broke.
Although jurors were informed about Julio Carrillo’s guilty plea, they were instructed by Justice Robert Murray that his admission did not necessarily exonerate Sharon Carrillo.
Her attorneys worked to prove to the jury that a very different scenario had taken place. Through witness testimony and other evidence they tried to show that Sharon Carrillo was a victim of domestic violence, and that both she and her daughter were effectively silenced by Julio Carrillo from disclosing details of what was happening in the home. Experts testified that Sharon Carrillo’s IQ of 70 puts her in the bottom 2 percent of the population and that her low intellectual functioning and her fear of her husband made her especially vulnerable to making a false confession.
MacLean told the jury that initially his client denied being part of any of the abuse and backpedaled only after detectives told her that Julio Carrillo had been “100 percent honest” about what happened. Sharon Carrillo eventually caved under pressure from detectives, he said, but it didn’t mean it was true. He said that no physical evidence connected Sharon Carrillo to Kennedy’s abuse.
“Everything she ended up saying ‘yes’ to was part of the fiction that Julio Carrillo invented,” the attorney argued.
MacLean showed the jurors the photograph depicting Kennedy, naked, kneeling on the tile floor with her pregnant mother, naked, kneeling on the floor behind her to dispel arguments from prosecutors that Sharon Carrillo was somehow an accomplice.
“For the love of God, ladies and gentlemen — does that look like an accomplice to you?” he asked. “Julio Carrillo was acting alone in torturing and killing that little girl.”
Over the course of the trial, jurors saw evidence that included photographs of the girl’s injuries, both from the autopsy and from before her death, which apparently had been taken by Sharon or Julio Carrillo. They also saw cellphone videos taken by her stepfather, Julio Carrillo, which showed chaos and abuse inside the home that seemed aimed at both Kennedy and Sharon Carrillo.
Among the first witnesses to testify were the first responders who arrived at the home soon after Kennedy died, the police detectives who interviewed Sharon Carrillo, officers who gathered forensic evidence at the home and Dr. Mark Flomenbaum, the state’s chief medical examiner, who described what he learned about Kennedy’s injuries from the autopsy.
Other witnesses included a veritable parade of people who knew or suspected there was abuse happening in the home and tried to get help. Among those were people who lived near the Carrillos in their Main Street apartment in Bangor, including Randy Poulin, who said he saw Julio Carrillo hit Kennedy hard on the head and then threw her teddy bear in a dumpster, and Ethan Miele, who told the court he heard “crying, whimpering and skin-on-skin contact” in the apartment below him, as well as a child saying, “Daddy, stop! Daddy, please, please stop!”
Miele and others in the building reported the abuse over and over again to Bangor police and also the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Others who reported their suspicions included school officials from the Fairmount School in Bangor and Kennedy’s pediatrician at Eastern Maine Medical Center. The family was in the system, but the system failed to protect Kennedy.
One of the first witnesses who testified was social worker Sue Webber, who paid a home visit to the Carrillos about 48 hours before Kennedy’s death. She noticed the girl was bruised and lethargic but failed to verify Julio Carrillo’s claims that Kennedy was harming herself and that the stepfather was taking all the steps necessary to keep his family safe. In her notes from visits with the family, she even described Julio Carrillo as “charming,” MacLean said in court.
As disturbing as the information was that came to light after Kennedy’s death, the system was not on trial, Assistant Attorney General Leane Zainea said.
“There were two people accountable for this little girl’s death,” she said.
But Joe Kennedy, Sharon Carrillo’s father, said that more should have been done for the granddaughter he helped raise.
“Maine government failed … and I do not have a granddaughter,” he said. “Too many times, things were reported to DHHS and the police. There’s many people to blame in this. Not just Sharon.”