Wesley M. Villacci (2018 submitted photo)
FARMINGTON — Maine’s highest court has overturned the domestic violence assault conviction of a 23-year-old Farmington man after finding a Franklin County court erred when giving instructions to the jury.
Wesley M. Villacci, 23, was convicted in a 2017 trial of felony domestic violence assault and violating conditions of release. The jury, which deliberated for four hours, cleared him of a higher charge of aggravated assault.
He had been sentenced to 4½ years in prison, with all but three years suspended, and four years of probation.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court’s decision, released Tuesday, vacates the convictions and instructs the case to be scheduled for a new trial.
According to court records, Villacci and the victim began an intimate relationship in 2015 and, during a disagreement Oct. 1, 2016, Villacci hit the victim in the face, grabbed her by her hair and banged her head on the dashboard and side window of the vehicle he was driving. After he pushed her into the passenger side door and kicked her, the car went off the road and hit a tree.
When Villacci got out of the car, he hit the victim’s head again, hard enough that her vision went black, according to court records. She dropped to the ground, and Villacci continued hitting and kicking her.
When the couple returned home, Villacci continued the assault by slapping and punching the victim, and “pushed her into a wall and onto the ground, and placed his hands around the victim’s throat and strangled her until she passed out.”
According to the court, “Villacci then began hitting and pushing the victim again” while she was unconscious.
At his trial, the jury heard evidence that Villacci assaulted the victim on multiple other occasions between October 2016 and January 2017, at least once per week and sometimes daily, by “strangling her until she almost passed out; kicking her; hitting her; biting her; holding her face down in the snow; and slapping her face with an open palm, giving her a bloody nose.”
On one occasion in November 2016, according to trial records, “Villacci ripped the towel off the victim after she exited the shower, whipped her with the towel, pushed her head into a wall, pulled her down the hall by her hair and hit her with a broom handle.”
At a two-day trial in September 2017, Villacci testified that he acted in self-defense, in defense of his premises and property and that he acted with the consent of the victim.
When the trial court gave the jury oral instructions before it began deliberations, the court instructed the jury to consider whether the state proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt and instructed the group to consider the elements of self-defense justifications, including whether Villacci was justified in using a reasonable degree of non-deadly force to defend himself, his home and his property, and whether the victim consented to Villacci’s conduct, according to trial records.
Then, the court provided the jury with a written verdict form that “asked only whether Villaci was guilty or not guilty of aggravated assault and domestic violence assault and made no mention of the statutory language for self-defense justifications. Nor, any written mention that the state was obliged to disprove those self-defense claims for the jury to reach a guilty verdict.”
According to trial records, the jury sent several notes to the court during its four-hour deliberations asking for additional information, including a definition of aggravated assault. Villacci’s defense attorney asked the court to also provide language on self-defense justifications, but since the jury did not specifically ask for that the court denied that defense request.
According to the law court’s ruling, “if the state did not disprove self-defense, the jury was required to acquit the defendant, even if the jury otherwise found that the defendant had committed all the elements of aggravated assault.” But, because the jury was not asked to consider whether the state disproved those claims, the verdict is overturned.
In its unanimous decision, the court found that “these errors in the jury instructions were highly prejudicial” to Villacci, given that he asserted self-defense.
Villacci has a prior conviction of domestic violence assault from 2015 in Androscoggin County, where he was sentenced to serve 364 days in jail with all but 26 days suspended. He also has convictions of criminal mischief and harassment by telephone in separate incidents in Franklin County in 2013, and multiple convictions of violating conditions of release in both counties.