PORTLAND — An Auburn man convicted of murder in a 2005 double slaying in Lewiston is seeking a new trial, claiming his trial attorney was ineffective.
Gary Gauthier Jr., who was 26 at the time of his conviction, took his case Wednesday to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
The first time his case landed in that court, he was appealing his conviction and 60-year prison sentence. That effort failed.
On Wednesday, Auburn lawyer Justin Leary argued that Gauthier’s legal counsel at the time of the 2006 trial, Robert Ruffner, bungled Gauthier’s defense.
An Androscoggin County Superior Court judge rejected that argument last year. Gauthier, 30, appealed that decision to the state’s high court.
Gauthier and Thomas Dyer were convicted of killing John Graffam, 30, and James Vining, 43, both from Auburn. Their bodies were found buried in a shallow grave next to a railroad bed in a remote area of Lewiston.
Prosecutors said the two lured their victims into the woods where they were beaten to death with a baseball bat. The victims’ wallets were taken to hide their identities. The defendants buried evidence of the crime, including bloody clothing and alcohol containers, in a hole in the ground in a wooded area in Pownal. A caretaker found the stash and called police a couple of months after the crime.
During a half-hour hearing Wednesday, Justice Joseph Jabar told Leary that an unsuccessful defense strategy doesn’t necessarily mean an attorney was ineffective. Leary countered that Ruffner’s strategy was disastrous.
“This isn’t one that simply went bad,” Leary said. “This was a horrible defense.”
Chief Justice Leigh Saufley said prosecutors at the trial were able to show the jury that both Gauthier and co-defendant Dyer had been at the scene of the killings and that there was victims’ blood on Gauthier’s clothes.
“There was a very good possibility that the jury would convict your client,” she said.
Before resting his case for the defense, Ruffner had made an effort to introduce evidence that pointed to Dyer as the “main actor” in the crimes and suggested Gauthier may have been coerced into playing a role, she noted.
“The fact that other information came in that was not helpful doesn’t say that the attorney was incompetent,” Saufley said. “Had he rested knowing that there was other evidence out there, you would be here today saying it was incompetent counsel who rested after the state’s evidence was placed before the jury.” Leary disputed the notion that the jury was ready to convict Gauthier based solely on the prosecutor’s case.
A Red Sox jersey had blood spatter on its back, suggesting the person who wore it had his back turned to the death blows dealt to the victims. The Red Sox jersey purportedly was worn by Gauthier on the night of the killings, Ruffner had argued during the trial.
“The forensic evidence indicates … that that person did not wield the baseball bat,” Leary said. That was enough to cast doubt on Gauthier’s guilt, Leary said. Ruffner should have rested his case at that point, he said. But instead, Ruffner introduced an incriminating statement Dyer had given to police. That move prompted Dyer to testify against Gauthier, pointing to him as the instigator. He and his girlfriend made incriminating statements about Gauthier, who declined to take the stand in his own defense.
Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber told the panel of six judges Wednesday that Leary would have to show that Ruffner’s defense strategy had been “manifestly unreasonable,” he said. “He has to show that it’s off-the-charts wrong.” The lower court judge rightly denied Gauthier’s post-conviction review finding he failed to show ineffective assistance of counsel, Macomber said.
Had Ruffner rested his case before presenting evidence that deflected blame away from Gauthier, “this jury would have convicted Mr. Gauthier probably within 15 or 20 minutes,” instead of the nearly four hours it took the 12 jurors to reach a verdict.
Saufley pointed out that Gauthier had been involved in crafting the defense strategy employed by Ruffner.
The case will be reviewed by the court. No decision is expected soon.