Joseph Eaton enters a West Bath courtroom on Thursday. Police say Eaton confessed to shooting seven people — killing four of them, including his parents — after being released from prison last week. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Judy Harrison has covered Maine courts for more than 20 years. She has reported on dozens of murder and manslaughter cases and hundreds of other criminal matters. This analysis is based on that experience.

Joseph Eaton made his first appearance Thursday in West Bath District Court on four murder charges but questions remain about how events unfolded Monday and Tuesday in Bowdoin and Yarmouth, where he was apprehended.

Eaton, 34, of Bowdoin has been charged in the deaths of his parents, Cynthia R. Eaton, 63, and David Lee Eaton, 66, both of Ocala, Florida, and the friends they were staying with, Robert C. Eger Jr., 72, and Patricia Deraps Eger, 62, who owned the home. A dog inside the home was also shot.

He also is expected to be charged in connection with a shooting spree on the Yarmouth exit ramp in Interstate 295 south on Tuesday. Three people — Sean Halsey, 51, and his two children, Justin Halsey, 29, and Paige Halsey, 25, all of Bowdoinham — were wounded in Yarmouth and taken to Maine Medical Center in Portland. The men suffered injuries not considered life-threatening, but Paige Halsey was critically injured. On Wednesday afternoon, Sean Halsey said that his daughter’s breathing tube had been removed and she was recovering.  

Here’s what we know, what’s still a question and what might be coming next.

What’s next in the criminal proceedings?

Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin, who is prosecuting the case, said Thursday that police are continuing to investigate both the slayings and the Yarmouth shooting spree. Once those investigations are complete evidence will be presented to the respective grand juries — Sagadahoc County for the murder charges and Cumberland County for the Yarmouth shooting spree. Charges in the Yarmouth incident are not expected to be filed before they are presented to the grand jury. Under Maine law, prosecutors have three grand jury sessions or six months, whichever comes first, to seek indictments. It is unlikely either case will be presented to a grand jury before their June sessions.

What additional charges might be filed in the homicide case?

The most likely additional charge would be possession of a firearm by a felon, a Class C crime. It would be unusual to add misdemeanor charges to a murder indictment but prosecutors could charge him with animal cruelty, a Class D crime, if he shot and killed the dog found with the human victims in Bowdoin. Depending on how much damage was done at the home and on the grounds, Joseph Eaton also could be charged with criminal mischief. The class of crime depends on the cost of repairs. If convicted, Joseph Eaton could be ordered to pay restitution to the Egers’ estate.

Sagadahoc Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Aaron Schofield hangs “no trespassing” signs and a steel cable across the driveway at a home on the Augusta Road in Bowdoin on Wednesday, April 19, 2023. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

What charges might be filed in the Yarmouth shooting spree?

This case will be prosecuted by the Maine Attorney General’s office rather than the Cumberland County District Attorney’s office. It is expected to be consolidated with the murder case in Sagadahoc County. The most serious charges Joseph Eaton might face from the Yarmouth incident would be attempted murder  and elevated aggravated assault, both Class A crimes, punishable by up to 30 years in prison, due the serious injuries Paige Halsey suffered. He also could face other felony charges including aggravated assault, reckless conduct with a dangerous weapon, being a felon in possession of a firearm and criminal mischief due to the damage to cars hit by gunfire. How many counts he might face on each of those charges is not yet known but multiple people driving on Interstate 295 reported being shot at and/or having their vehicles hit by gunfire. If convicted, Joseph Eaton could be ordered to pay restitution to the victims.

What guns were used in the shootings?

Neither police nor prosecutors have revealed what kind of guns or how many were used in the Bowdoin slayings or the Yarmouth incident. The affidavit in the Bowdoin case said more than one gun was found in the home and more than one type of gun casing was recovered in Yarmouth. Information about the types of weapons used is unlikely to be available until and unless Joseph Eaton requests a probable cause hearing, which would be unusual but not unheard of in a murder case. It also could come out during a hearing on a motion to suppress Joseph Eaton’s statements to police, if his court-appointed attorney, Andrew Wright of Brunswick, requests one.

Since Superior Court Justice Daniel Billings on Thursday ordered that Joseph Eaton undergo a psychological evaluation, it is more likely that the types of weapons used would be revealed at a hearing to determine if Joseph Eaton is competent to stand trial. Testimony there would come from forensic psychologists and psychiatrists hired by the defense and the prosecution, who would testify about whether Joseph Eaton knew right from wrong when he allegedly committed the crimes.

Where did the guns come from?

As a convicted felon, Joseph Eaton was prohibited from residing in a home with guns so it’s been a question where and how he accessed the weapons used in the shootings. However, guns and ammunition were most likely readily accessible in the Eger home. More than one firearm was found in the home by police, according to the affidavit. Joseph Eaton was released from prison on April 14. Since he was moved to Maine in March 2021 from a Florida prison, it is unlikely he had a valid Maine driver’s license or identification card required to purchase guns from a licensed firearms dealer. Also, his status as a felon would have prevented him from legally buying a gun from a licensed dealer. He could have gotten the guns through a private sale without the background check required of licensed dealers but that likely would have required money, which it’s unclear if he had days after release from prison.

What was the motive for the shootings?

Prosecutors do not have to prove motive in any crime in Maine so it is not something investigators focus on but it is a question jurors want answered. Motive most often is outlined to a jury in prosecutors’ opening statements and closing arguments but sometimes it is not known until sentencing when it is revealed in victim-impact statements and a defendant’s allocution to a judge. The motive, in this case, won’t be known until and unless there are hearings on pre-trial motions such concerning the probable cause, suppression of statements to police and/or competency. His motive might not be known before a trial.

Credit: Courtesy of Linda Walker

When were the Eatons and Egers killed?

The affidavit said that all four people and the dog were slain on Monday but exactly when was not included in the affidavit. The bodies were discovered about 9:20 a.m. Tuesday. Information about the time of death will be included in the autopsy reports. So far, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has not released them due to the ongoing investigation. That is not unusual. While they are public documents under Maine law, the office has discretion about when they can be released to people who are not involved in the investigation and prosecution of homicides. Victims’ family members also may obtain copies of autopsies before they are available to the public. This information could be made public during hearings on probable cause, suppression of statements to police and competency if they are requested by Joseph Eaton’s defense team.

What happens if Joseph Eaton pleads not guilty by reason of insanity?

By asking for a psychiatric evaluation at Thursday’s initial appearance, Joseph Eaton’s attorney put in motion a possible insanity defense. Under Maine law, a  defendant is not criminally responsible by reason of insanity if, “at the time of the criminal conduct, as a result of mental disease or defect, the defendant lacked substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of the criminal conduct.” This is a very difficult defense to prove unless Joseph Eaton has a long and well-documented mental health history. Testimony at a trial most likely would include conflicting testimony from forensic psychologists and psychiatrists. It also would force jurors to deliberate in two separate phases. The first would be to determine if Joseph Eaton is guilty of the crimes he’s accused of or not. If he were to be found guilty, the next phase, which jurors would not be informed of prior to the start of the trial, would be to determine if he is criminally responsible for his actions or not. If the jury decided he was not responsible, Joseph Eaton would be sentenced to live at Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta instead of prison.

What sentence might Joseph Eaton face if convicted?

Murder carries a 25 to life sentence in Maine. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court in 1990 laid out conditions under which a judge may send a convicted murderer to prison for life. Those conditions are: multiple victims; premeditation; murder accompanied by torture, sexual abuse or other extreme cruelty; murder committed in a penal institution by an inmate; murder of a hostage; a previous murder conviction; or the murder of an on-duty law enforcement officer. One or more of them must apply for a convicted murderer to be sentenced to life, the state’s highest court said in its ruling in the case of Maine v. John Shortsleeves.

If convicted on four counts of murder, Joseph Eaton most likely would be sentenced to life in prison. His sentences in the Yarmouth incident would be much shorter but given his long and violent criminal history could be as long as 20 to 30 years on the most serious charges, which carry a maximum penalty of 30 years.