John D. Williams sits in a Portland courtroom on Thursday before being sentenced to life in prison for the 2018 murder of Somerset County Sheriff's Deputy Cpl. Eugene Cole. Williams is the second person in 30 years sentenced for the killing of an on-duty law enforcement officer in Maine. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

The man serving a life sentence for murdering an on-duty Somerset County sheriff’s deputy is asking the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to overturn his conviction and grant him a new trial.

John Williams, 32, of Madison was convicted last year of shooting Cpl. Eugene Cole in the neck on April 25, 2018, in Norridgewock as the Somerset County deputy tried to arrest him on a drug charge. After the slaying, Williams led hundreds of police officers on a four-day manhunt through Somerset County.

At the time of his death, Cole was the first Maine law enforcement officer shot to death in the line of duty in nearly three decades.

Williams never denied shooting Cole but maintained that because of his drug use, he was unable to form the intent to kill the deputy and was guilty of manslaughter, not murder, as a result.

Williams’ attorney Verne Paradie of Lewiston argues in his appellate brief that Superior Court Justice Robert Mullen should not have allowed a live demonstration by two law enforcement officers just a few feet from jurors that showed the prosecution’s theory of how Cole was shot because it “drastically changed the course of the trial.” Paradie argues that Mullen should have granted his motion for a mistrial over the use of the demonstration, which the lawyer claims he was unaware of until it was presented for the judge without the jury in the courtroom.

John Williams, left, who is charged with murder in the slaying of Somerset County Cpl. Eugene Cole, enters the Cumberland County Courthouse in Portland, Maine for opening arguments Monday, June 10, 2019. Credit: Shawn Patrick Ouellette | Portland Press Herald via AP, Pool

“Prior to, and if not for that demonstration, [Williams] submits that he had at least a chance at a manslaughter conviction, but there was no way to overcome the live performance of two officers,” Paradie, who defended Williams at his trial, said. “The demonstration served one purpose and one purpose only, to garner the sympathy of the jury by making it real and by playing it out only feet from the jury box.”

Paradie also called the state’s advocacy for the demonstration “prosecutorial misconduct.”

“This was a highly emotional and politically driven prosecution and the state pulled out all stops to secure a murder conviction against Mr. Williams,” Paradie said. “Unfortunately, the demonstration crossed the line between fairness and denying a defendant a fair trial.”

The Maine Attorney General’s office, which prosecutes all homicide cases, said in its brief that the judge properly admitted the demonstration by finding that it could help “tie some things together for the jury.”

“The court also indicated that it would allow the in-court demonstration with a limiting instruction to the effect that the demonstration was only a recreation of the state’s version of the events and should not be viewed as an actual recreation of the crime, and that like all other evidence, it could be accepted or rejected in whole or in part,” Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber, who is handling the appeal, said in his brief.

Macomber also said that the defense team was given a copy of the report theorizing the prosecution’s version of how Cole was shot and was told before the trial began that prosecutors planned to ask Mullen to approve an in-court demonstration. He denied Paradie’s allegation of prosecutorial misconduct.

Paradie also argued in his brief that Mullen should have suppressed Williams’ statements to police because his client was suffering from drug withdrawal and had been beaten by arresting officers. As a result, when detectives questioned Williams, he could not have voluntarily waived his Miranda right to a lawyer, as the prosecution claims he did. Macomber countered that the recording of Williams’ interview showed that “he was consistently alert, coherent and responsive.”

“In fact, contrary to the testimony of Williams’s expert Dr. Steinberg, the responding medical personnel who examined Williams immediately before the interview began, determined that Williams was oriented to person, place, time and situation, and that his vital signs were within acceptable ranges,” Macomber said.

Finally, Paradie contends that the judge made up his mind before the sentencing hearing to send Williams to prison for life and did not properly consider the defense’s arguments for a lesser sentence as the law required him to do.

Macomber argued that Maine law allowed the judge to send Williams to prison for life because he killed an on-duty police officer. Mullen took into account that Cole was shot execution style and said that Williams’ statement to police that he “eliminated” the deputy “haunted” the judge, Macomber said in his brief.

The justices will hear oral arguments in the case remotely on Sept. 15.