PORTLAND — A Massachusetts man was convicted Monday of two counts of murder in the 2011 shooting deaths of his estranged girlfriend and a longtime friend.
A Cumberland County Superior Court jury deliberated for just over an hour before finding Joel Hayden, 31, of New Bedford guilty of murder in the deaths of 27-year-old Renee Sandora of New Gloucester and Trevor Mills, 28, also of New Bedford.
Sandora was Hayden’s former girlfriend and the mother of his four children, and Mills was a longtime friend.
According to police, Hayden shot the pair outside Sandora’s home, with Sandora and Hayden’s then-7-year-old son witnessing his mother's shooting. The two died at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston the next day.
In court Monday, Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese presented closing arguments, telling the six men and six women on the jury "there is no question who killed Renee Sandora."
Summarizing testimony offered last week, Marchese reminded the jury that the couple’s son testified there was no one else at the house that day other than Hayden and the two shooting victims. And, according to Marchese, Hayden's cellphone records show he was in that area at that time.
"The evidence is simply overwhelming," she said.
Marchese also reminded the jury that the couple's son also testified that he saw his father shoot his mother, Sandora, on July 25, 2011, at their home at 322 Bennett Road in New Gloucester.
She reminded the jury that Sandora was on a 911 call when she told the dispatcher that Hayden had shot her and was asking him whether he was going to kill her in front of their children. And, Marchese also reminded the jury before it began deliberations, a neighbor told police someone fitting Hayden's description had sped from the crime scene in a black car. He would later lead police on a high speed chase in that car, before being arrested at gunpoint in Lyman.
After killing Sandora and Mills, Hayden drove to Lewiston seeking drugs, Marchese said.
Portland attorney Clifford Strike, one of Hayden's attorneys, told the jury in closing arguments that there was "no evidence whatsoever" that Hayden had acted with premeditation, as Marchese had suggested.
He also said there was no evidence Hayden had reloaded a .45-caliber handgun during the fatal shootings that left four bullet wounds in Trevor Mills and two in Sandora, including execution-style head shots to both victims.
Nine shell casings were found at the scene. No gun was recovered.
And, Strike called "patently absurd" Marchese's theory that Hayden had snorted pain pills after the shootings while he was leading police on a car chase.
In his closing remarks to the jury, the defense attorney also pointed out inconsistent testimony among Maine State Police troopers who responded to the scene.
Strike said his client had been high on drugs and shouldn't be held responsible for the shootings, if the jury concluded that he was the shooter.
"They can't have it both ways," Marchese said, giving a short rebuttal to Strike's closing arguments; either Hayden shot the two victims or he didn't.
In jury instructions, Justice Nancy Mills said jurors could find Hayden guilty of manslaughter if they didn't believe it was intentional or knowing murder. For a manslaughter conviction, they might decide that Hayden caused the deaths recklessly or with criminal negligence.
An affidavit filed by police with the court said Sandora’s parents told investigators Sandora had recently kicked Hayden out of their home, and that he had accused her of having a relationship with Mills.
Jealously was a motive for the killings, Marchese told the jury.
Jury selection began Jan. 4, and testimony in the case was presented all last week.
The victims' family members wept silently and hugged in the courtroom after the verdict was announced.
"It's a relief that it's over and we can move on," Patricia Gerber, mother of Sandora, told reporters outside the courthouse after the verdict.
Strike said afterward the evidence in the case had always favored the prosecution.
"The state had a fairly significant case," he said. "A lot of good facts for them. Not too many good facts for us."
Strike said he wasn't surprised the jury returned a verdict so quickly.
In negotiations before the trial, prosecutors offered a plea that was the equivalent of a life sentence, Strike said.
That's exactly what prosecutors will be asking Justice Mills to deliver at Hayden's sentencing, likely early next month, Marchese said after the verdict.
A murder conviction is punishable by 25 years to life.
"It's just horrible that the four children will grow up without their mother," she said. The four children are living with Sandora's mother and stepfather.
Both Marchese and Strike agreed that the two most compelling pieces of evidence were the testimony of the couple's son who witnessed most of the events and a 911 call from Sandora to a dispatcher after she'd been wounded by Hayden and just before she was shot fatally.
Hayden, with reported gang affiliations and multiple criminal convictions for drug possession, has 16 prior criminal convictions in New Bedford,
Superior Court records indicate Mills was sentenced to serve three years in state prison after pleading guilty to discharging a firearm and other gun offenses in October 2007.
In January 2004, Hayden was charged with shooting his mother's boyfriend during a domestic argument in New Bedford and was later arrested by federal agents in Lewiston. He was charged by Massachusetts authorities with aggravated assault and attempted murder in that case. Last August, New Bedford police arrested Hayden on charges of threatening to cut the same man with a glass jug.
According to the Standard-Times, the victim said Hayden told him, “I should have killed you when I had the chance.” However, the case was later dismissed on a probation officer’s recommendation, court records show.
In 2006, while Hayden was serving nine months in a Maine jail for drug offenses and eluding police during a car chase, he was charged with trafficking in prison contraband, drug dealing and carrying a concealed weapon. The charge of carrying a concealed weapon was later dismissed.
Hayden and Mills were together in 2001, according to Hayden’s mother, Marie Hayden, when they were each attacked and stabbed in New Bedford.