Dale Thistle sits with his defense attorney Will Ashe at the start of his trial at the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor on Wednesday. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

A Penobscot County jury will have to decide whether a former Newport lawyer deliberately stole $290,000 from a client’s estate 10 years ago or whether the impact of a head injury prevented him from forming the intent to break the law.

Dale Thistle , 74, of Quebec City, Quebec, has pleaded not guilty to one count of theft by misapplication, a Class B crime due to the amount of money involved.

Thistle’s trial, delayed by the pandemic, began Wednesday at the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor before a jury of 10 women and four men, including two alternates, with Superior Court Justice William Anderson presiding. The case is expected to go to the jury for a verdict on Friday.

The money Thistle is accused of stealing was a portion of a $390,000 wrongful death settlement meant for the estate of Gilman Friend, who died in December 2010 at the age of 82 as the result of a fall at his Newport home, according to opening statements made to jurors Wednesday. Thistle was entitled to about $96,000 in legal fees.

Friend’s widow, Donna Friend, hired Thistle to sue Sebasticook Valley Hospital’s ambulance service for wrongful death, and Thistle negotiated the settlement.

It turned out, however, that Donna Friend was not entitled to the money because she and Gilman Friend had divorced before his death but continued living together.

Thistle should have turned the settlement money over to Gilman Friend’s estate and his four children, according to the Maine Attorney General’s office, which is prosecuting the case.

Assistant Attorney General Charles Boyle told jurors in his opening statement that Thistle was in serious financial trouble when he received the settlement in the wrongful death case.

“He was an experienced attorney who knew better than to steal from his clients,” Boyle said. “There were tax liens on his property because he owed the Internal Revenue Service and the Maine Revenue Services back taxes, and he owed alimony to his ex-wife.

“He saw an opportunity and he took it,” the prosecutor continued. “He took it when no one was looking, and he took all of it. By the time anyone came looking for the money, none of it was left.”

Initially, Thistle was accused of stealing $260,000, but that amount was revised upward during trial preparation.

Thistle’s attorney, Will Ashe of Ellsworth, said that his client opened his law practice in 1992 as a second career after being a school teacher and a restaurant owner. Thistle became known as “a skilled trial lawyer,” who handled complex civil rights cases, Ashe said.

That all changed on Nov. 17, 2011, when a drunken driver struck the car Thistle was driving.

“At first, it appeared that he had suffered no significant injuries, but a few days later at a family Thanksgiving dinner, he was speaking gibberish. His legal practice immediately suffered. He can’t open his mail, he doesn’t respond to emails, he doesn’t return phone calls.”

While the litigation that led to the settlement began in late 2020, Thistle did not receive the settlement until early 2012, a few months after he sustained the head injury, Ashe said.

Two of Gilman Friend’s children testified Wednesday that they did not learn their father had divorced their step-mother or that there had been a wrongful death claim and settlement until after she died in October 2014.

The trial is expected to continue Thursday.

Thistle has not practiced law in Maine since June 2014, when he was suspended by the Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar due to a disability. The complaint that led to the suspension was filed by Gilman Friend’s children. The board shared its information with the attorney general’s office.

If convicted of theft, Thistle faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. He also could be ordered to pay restitution to Gilman Friend’s heirs.