Case took over defense attorney’s life

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AUBURN — It’s called the war room.

It’s up a steep flight of stairs on the top floor of a three-story office building.

It’s where Leonard Sharon planned the self-defense case of Daniel Roberts who had shot his ex-girlfriend in the back of the head.

It’s where his legal team met each Sunday since October, a half-dozen people, including a private investigator, a legal researcher, a forensic psychologist, even a jury consultant.

“I couldn’t have done this by myself,” he said. It took a lot of people and a lot of money to pay himself and his team members, six figures, “easily,” he said.

Each member of the team had been required to read the state’s 5,000 pages of discovery — to start.

Sharon spent months listening to taped interviews, taking notes. He worked in his other cases around it.

The job the state had done investigating was thorough, Sharon explained, while asserting the state was less than thorough with their analysis of the crime scene.

Ever the defense lawyer.

A long light oak conference table that spans the length of the war room is barely visible beneath the debris of legal volumes, notebooks, folders, index cards, legal pads and dirty coffee mugs. The takeout dinner cartons had been cleared out shortly before. They had started to smell.

Book shelves lined up along the wall behind the table are stuffed with three-ring binders about the case.

It all started for Sharon when he got a call from Roberts early on the morning of Aug. 15, 2005.

He had just shot Melissa Mendoza in the garage at his Sabattus home.

Sharon dressed quickly and met his client at the police station for a three-hour interview with Maine State Police.

He had known Roberts for about 18 years through friends and clients. His client had been a member of the Hells Angels, “patched” in California. He returned to Maine and became president of the Lewiston charter, a spinoff from the Cannan charter, said Sharon, who has represented the club and many of its members.

“I always become this close to a case,” Sharon said, “but seldom become this close to a client and his family, and his friends.”

Few of his clients and even fewer of their families have become as engaged in the process as in this case, he said.

Sharon and Roberts met often before Roberts was even indicted in December 2005, laying the legal groundwork. Sharon kept Roberts apprised of every piece of new information. He made Roberts co-counsel at his own trial.

He’s “one of the strongest human beings I’ve ever met, emotionally,” Sharon said. Roberts was an integral part of his defense team, Sharon said.

In New Hampshire, Sharon held a two-day mock trial with live and taped witnesses. They got to observe the jury deliberations. The verdicts came back about 50/50, Sharon said.

During the three-week trial in Auburn, Sharon called three times for a mistrial. Once, the judge took him in her chambers and cautioned him about his tone.

Sharon, who stands at 6 feet, 8 inches, isn’t afraid to point out an inequity or make an objection when he sees one, even if it gets him pulled into a judge’s chambers.

“I think it was an intense trial for everybody,” he said. His strategy was to try to show the jury a different side of Mendoza, one who wasn’t the caring, loving mother the state had portrayed.

After three weeks, the jury took little time in reaching its conclusion. It spent roughly three hours deliberating.

Standing with Roberts waiting for the foreman to read the verdict, Sharon said he felt like he was in suspended animation.

“My heart’s beating 900 miles an hour, and I can’t feel my feet touching the ground,” he said. “I was petrified.”

He imagines Roberts felt that way too.

When the words, “Guilty,” filled the silent courtroom, Sharon said, “It was like somebody hit me in the back with a baseball bat.”

It wasn’t the first time he had heard that word. A defense attorney for more than 36 years, he’s heard it more than most people.

He tries to prepare for the possibility, but it still hurts like the first time.

“It’s an enormous emotional beating when you put everything into it and the jury finds your client guilty,” he said.

He tells himself he did the best he could, but wonders what he could have done differently.

“You always blame yourself . . . I always blame myself.”

A defense lawyer turned judge once told him he made the switch because every time a client gets convicted it takes a little bit away from your soul.

But, Sharon, who turned 61 on Monday, the day of closing arguments, isn’t ready to walk away.

He talks about his mother, who’s 96 and his inspiration.

“I never saw any give in her,” he said. She was orphaned in the 10th grade and had to drop out of school. When Sharon’s father died, his mother had no money, so she got a job as a cashier.

Being a defense lawyer has taken a lot out of him, he said.

“As hard as it is, I love it.”

Sharon has been tracking the grounds for appeal, including Androscoggin County Superior Court Justice Joyce Wheeler’s refusal to grant a hearing on Sharon’s motion to have her recuse herself. He filed a motion suggesting she might be biased because of her earlier efforts in domestic violence policy making.

He also believes Justice Wheeler should have changed the venue for the trial, out of the county where there appears to be a “virulence in the community toward Danny” that may have tainted the jury before the trial started, he said.

Rather than being presumed innocent, Roberts may have been presumed guilty, Sharon said.

Signs on the courthouse door warning against the wearing of colors, associated with motorcycle gangs, only “added to the aura of his dangerousness,” Sharon said.

Sharon had wanted to quiz prospective jurors in greater depth than the judge allowed, he said.

He visited Roberts on Thursday at the Androscoggin County Jail.

His client was starting to come to grips with the conviction, Sharon said. Barring successful appeal, Roberts is facing the possibility of never getting out of jail, Sharon said.

“Keep fighting,” Roberts said. “Don’t give up.”

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