AUBURN — A Lewiston man sentenced to spend 22 years in prison for stabbing his former girlfriend was seeking a new trial Wednesday, claiming his lawyers failed to advise him to take a plea offer and discouraged him from testifying in his own defense.
Cleveland Cruthirds, 32, was convicted by a jury of elevated aggravated assault, burglary and violation of bail conditions.
A judge sentenced him to 28 years in prison, with six years suspended. The charge of elevated aggravated assault carries a maximum sentence of 30 years.
Cruthirds was also originally charged with aggravated attempted murder, but the jury was instructed before deliberation to disregard that charge.
On Dec. 10, 2011, Naomi Swift was stabbed 21 times in her head, face, neck and arm. She identified Cruthirds as her attacker at his week-long trial in 2013.
Cruthirds appeared Wednesday in Androscoggin County Superior Court, where his lawyer, Hunter Tzovarras, quizzed him about John Paul DeGrinney and Peter Richard, his trial lawyers.
In his petition for a post-conviction review, Cruthirds wrote he had not been properly informed of any plea offers or advised properly by his trial lawyers about whether he should accept a particular plea offer before or during his trial.
He also complained he had not been properly advised or fully informed of his right to testify at his trial.
Cruthirds said he only has a 10th-grade education and has dyslexia. He had no criminal record before his 2013 conviction.
He said DeGrinney encouraged him to take his case to trial, telling him he had a 50-50 chance of winning.
A judge had told his lawyers at a pretrial conference a sentence in a case like his could end up being 10 years, with all but six years suspended, according to Cruthirds.
“That kind of gave us motivation to go ahead with the trial,” Cruthirds said.
He said Richard told him, “We’ve got a good case here,” but cautioned Cruthirds could still be found guilty at trial.
Prosecutors had offered a sentence of 25 years in prison, with all but 20 years suspended.
DeGrinney told Cruthirds, “With what the prosecutor’s giving us, we might as well take it to trial,” Cruthirds testified.
He said neither of his lawyers had a serious talk with him about the advantages of taking a plea.
“If your attorneys had given you a stern talking to and said there’s a good chance you could be convicted at trial, and there’s a good chance you could get a sentence higher than 20 years, would that have affected whether you accepted the offers?” Tzovarras asked.
“Yes,” Cruthirds said.
DeGrinney testified later Wednesday that Cruthirds had very definite ideas about what he wanted to happen with his case and DeGrinney let his court-appointed client have as much say as possible.
“I don’t have any recollection of his interest in a plea bargain that wasn’t in, like, the eight-year range,” DeGrinney said. “I thought it was in his best interest to try to secure a plea agreement. I definitely saw this case as having some really bad facts. And I thought that if we could sort of navigate a softer landing for Cleveland that was probably in his best interest.”
DeGrinney said he understood when he was appointed that Cruthirds was intent on going to trial.
“He was pretty clear with me that he did not want any deals that were not very, very lenient,” DeGrinney said.
He said he would not have encouraged any defendant to go to trial on that case.
“I thought it was an extremely difficult case,” he said. “But I respect clients when they say they want to go to trial, and I try tough cases.”
DeGrinney said he never told Cruthirds the case had even odds of success.
“This was never a 50-50 case,” he said.
Cruthirds said Wednesday that DeGrinney told him during his trial that he should not testify.
“He said, ‘I don’t think you ought to testify,'” but did not tell him why, Cruthirds said. He said he was never prepared by his lawyers to take the stand in case he decided to testify.
“It kind of got to a point where it wasn’t my decision,” he said.
DeGrinney said Wednesday it was always Cruthirds’ right to testify, and he was told this many times.
“Cleveland’s pretty clear about what he … wants to see happen,” DeGrinney said.
“I tell every client, particularly either just before we’re going to rest or when we’re getting ready to go on, that they’re going to have a right to clear up any inconsistencies or testify if they so choose,” DeGrinney said.
Assistant District Attorney Andrew Matulis read from a trial transcript that Cruthirds told the trial judge he did not wish to testify, and that anything he had to tell the jury he would have told a Lewiston detective during his pretrial interrogation.
Cruthirds said Wednesday he did not remember telling that to the judge during his trial.
Evidence at trial against Cruthirds included a taped 911 call that was played for the jury. In that call, the victim could be heard screaming Cruthirds’ name before and during her stabbing. The case also featured a witness to the attack who told police what she had seen.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court denied Cruthirds’ appeal in 2014.
His petition includes other claims, including that a police interview should have been played during his trial and police might have destroyed evidence before the trial.
Lawyers will have until mid-January to submit written closing arguments.
Cleveland Cruthirds (Christopher Williams/Sun Journal)