Rev. Anthony Cipolle (left) and Renee Henneberry Clark. Credit: Contributed

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The Maine Supreme Judicial Court will decide if a Hampden man serving a 43-year sentence for slaying his sister-in-law more than 2½ years ago should be granted a new trial because of mistakes he says the trial judge made.

One of them was that Superior Court Justice William Stokes did not recuse himself because he had met the Rev. Anthony Cipolle, the Catholic priest who beat up defendant Philip Clark just hours before the murder, Clark’s defense team said in its brief. Another alleged mistake was not letting lawyers argue that Clark was guilty of manslaughter, not murder, because he was provoked into shooting the victim.

The maximum sentence for manslaughter in Maine is 30 years in prison while the sentence for murder is 25 years to life.

Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber argued in his brief that the judge properly followed Maine law and trial procedures.

Justices on Maine’s high court heard oral arguments in the case remotely on Wednesday.

Clark, now 57, confessed to police that he pulled the trigger after Renee Henneberry Clark, 49, pushed “every frigging button she could” until he snapped and shot her 10 times on July 11, 2018, in the bedroom of her Hampden apartment.

Her body was found two days later. Clark lived in an adjoining apartment at 557 Kennebec Road.

The former residence of Philip Clark and Renee Henneberry Clark. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Clark’s attorneys, Logan Perkins of Belfast and David Bate of Bangor, argued that Stokes, who presided at Clark’s November 2019 trial, should have recused himself from the case because he could not be impartial. The judge told lawyers that he’d met Cipolle four or five years earlier when the priest was a seminarian assigned to the Catholic church in Augusta, where Stokes read scripture at Masses.

Stokes replaced Superior Court Justice William Anderson two weeks before jury selection was set to begin for reasons that have not been made public. The new judge refused to recuse himself, saying that he did not know Cipolle well and only had a couple of conversations with him, the brief said.

“There is no ignoring the religious connection between the lector/judge and that seminarian/priest/witness,” the defendant’s brief said. Clark’s lawyers called that connection “part of a deep spiritual brotherhood that is, for many, so intensely tribal, subconsciously ingrained, difficult to abandon, and private that the justice’s unconscious bias in this context might reasonably be questioned.”

Stokes was not required to turn the case over to another judge, Macomber said in his brief.

Under the Maine Code of Judicial Conduct, judges must recuse themselves if their “impartiality might reasonably be questioned” or if they have a “personal bias or prejudice concerning a party or personal knowledge of disputed evidentiary facts concerning the proceeding,” the prosecutor argued.

From left (clockwise): A picture of Renee Henneberry Clark was shown on a screen during Philip Clark’s trial at the Penobscot Judicial Center in 2019; Philip Clark, 56, of Hampden, pictured in court in 2019; Philip Clark awaits his sentencing at the Penobscot Judicial Center in 2019 for the murder of Renee Henneberry Clark. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN

“The ‘mere belief’ that a judge might not be completely impartial is insufficient to warrant recusal,” he said.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland fired Cipolle last year, saying he had abused his position as a member of the clergy. In sentencing Clark in 2019, Stokes said the former priest had “inflamed” the situation that led to Henneberry Clark’s death.

Clark’s lawyers also argued that Stokes should have given jurors instruction in adequate provocation — circumstances that are sufficient to deprive a reasonable person of self-control.

“The evidence points only to the conclusion that Philip’s anger overcame him suddenly when he heard Renee, through the thin wall of the adjacent apartment, talking in a loud and taunting manner about the beating,” Clark’s attorneys wrote.

That was when Philip Clark took his gun into his sister-in-law’s apartment, he told police.

“Philip asked Renee, ‘You really think it’s funny that that guy beat the hell out of me?’” the defense brief said. “She responded, ‘I think it’s hilarious!’ In a state of extreme anger provoked by her cruel, egregious, and aggregating mistreatment, Philip shot her.”

The prosecution argued that the slaying took place several hours after the fight and not immediately.

“Renee Clark, who was unarmed, didn’t do anything to Philip Clark that could be considered ‘adequate provocation’ for Clark to shoot her,” Macomber said.

Clark had been told not to enter her apartment but, after drinking that night, he took a loaded firearm, entered her bedroom, confronted her and shot her multiple times, he said.

The justices’ questions Wednesday focused on the use of adequate provocation as a defense.

They considered how long before a homicide the provoking act must take place before a jury might consider the crime manslaughter rather than murder. They also discussed whether the court should find that the cumulative impact of actions over time should be included in jury instructions when adequate provocation is considered.

Clark’s attorneys also challenged Stokes’ denial of a motion to suppress the defendant’s confession, Clark’s use of the word “murder” with police and the length of his sentence.

Clark is incarcerated at the Maine State Prison in Warren. His earliest possible release date is Aug. 24, 2055, when he would be 92, according to the Maine Department of Corrections.

There is no timetable for when the justices must issue a decision on granting Clark a new trial.