SABATTUS — The state’s high court on Tuesday upheld the conviction of a Sabattus woman who aided in her husband’s abuse of a pre-teenager.
Christal Gagnier, 28, was convicted last year by a jury on felony charges of tampering with a victim and aggravated furnishing of scheduled drugs. She was also convicted of a misdemeanor, endangering the welfare of a child.
She was sentenced to seven years in prison with all but three years suspended, plus three years of probation.
Gagnier appealed her conviction to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, arguing that the jury should have been instructed on duress as a legal defense before it began deliberations. Gagnier testified at trial that she undertook the actions she did because she was so fearful of her husband, Michael Gagnier.
Writing the unanimous opinion for the high court, Justice Jeffrey Hjelm concluded the evidence presented at trial “did not generate that defense.”
Gagnier said her husband-to-be first sexually assaulted her when she was 12 years old while he was a friend of Gagnier’s mother. He and Gagnier’s mother also developed a sexual relationship.
In 2007, Gagnier and her mother fought after her mother accused Gagnier of “stealing her man.” Her mother later moved out, Gagnier married Michael Gagnier and they had two children, according to Hjelm’s published opinion.
Christal Gagnier testified that her husband grew angry, became delusional and carried a gun. Michael Gagnier was involuntarily committed, then released. After he returned home, he began to physically and sexually assault a 10-year-old girl. That abuse continued for three years.
He also sexually assaulted Christal Gagnier. He hit her with a belt, leaving welts. He threatened her and once fired a pellet gun near her head. He regularly choked her and she would pretend to be unconscious, according to her testimony.
She said she was afraid to call police because her husband said he had people at school and on the street watching them, according to Hjelm’s published opinion.
In 2012, Gagnier was diagnosed with chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease for which she was given a prescription. When the victim developed similar symptoms, Michael Gagnier refused to allow her to see a doctor, so Christal Gagnier gave her some of her medication.
The victim reported once in 2012 and once in 2013 that she was being sexually abused.
Michael Gagnier was arrested and told Christal Gagnier to tell the victim not to make any statements that would incriminate him. She told the girl, who was going to meet with investigators, not to be too hard on Michael Gagnier and that he loved her.
During her two-day trial in March, Christal Gagnier had asked that the judge instruct the jury on duress as a legal defense on the three counts. The judge repeatedly denied Gagnier’s request.
Androscoggin County Superior Court Justice MaryGay Kennedy wrote that, despite evidence of an abusive relationship, “there (was) not sufficient evidence to suggest that (Gagnier) could not have gotten out of” her situation because she had many opportunities to report the abuse and seek help.
Arguing on appeal before the high court in May, her attorney, George Hess, said a lifetime of physical and sexual torment at the hands of her husband produced a climate of fear that rendered his client incapable of helping the young victim.
Hess said his client was dependent, financially and emotionally, on her husband, who had been dating Christal Gagnier’s mother. That dependency increased when she became an adult and married him.
Assistant District Attorney Lisa Bogue said Christal Gagnier never filed charges against her husband, never told police or social workers during the investigation that she suffered any abuse and prosecutors only learned about it when she testified at trial.
Bogue said Michael Gagnier was in jail at the time that Christal Gagnier had instructed the victim not to tell a case worker about her abuse so he couldn’t have posed a threat to Christal Gagnier.
In his written opinion, Hjelm wrote: “When the basis for a duress defense is a threat, that threat ‘must be real and specific, and the specific harm that is feared must be imminent.’”