PORTLAND — A hired hit man from Mexico convicted of double murder appealed his sentence before Maine’s highest court Wednesday, arguing through his attorney that the 45-year term imposed by a lower court judge was skewed.
Eric Hamel, 22, pleaded guilty in 2010 to two counts of murder in the fatal shootings of Victor Reed Sheldon and Roger Leroy Day Jr. in Rumford in August 2009.
Hamel went to Day’s home where he shot Day and Sheldon, who had been staying there. The plan for the shootings was hatched weeks earlier, Hamel’s attorney, George Hess, told the seven members of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Wednesday.
Richard Moulton, a school friend of Hamel, had recruited him to kill Sheldon because Moulton’s girlfriend, Gayla Sheldon, was Victor Sheldon’s estranged wife and she wanted him out of the picture.
“The events which unfolded that August evening had been set in motion by Gayla Sheldon,” Hess said. “She feared losing custody of her children to her former partner, Victor.”
Gayla Sheldon had recruited Moulton to kill Victor Sheldon, but Moulton balked, so he recruited Hamel with the promise of $2,000 that would be paid out incrementally by Gayla Sheldon through her state welfare benefits, Hess said.
Moulton was sentenced to 40 years in prison; Gayla Sheldon got 25 years, with all but 15 suspended.
The sentencing judge “must endeavor to create consistency among sentences for similar crimes and must at the same time tailor the sentence to the individual defendant,” Hess said. “We contend that the sentencing judge in this case was wrong in imposing a greater sentence on Eric, given the equal culpability of all of the defendants and their similar mitigating and aggravating circumstances.”
Justice Donald Alexander told Hess of an “almost identical circumstance” in which a similar crime in Saco involving brother and sister defendants resulted in a 45-year sentence for the sister and a life sentence for the brother. The high court affirmed the life sentence despite the disparity, Alexander said.
“Doesn’t this happen all the time, where different parties get different sentences?” Alexander asked.
“Neither Gayla Sheldon nor Richard Moulton was apparently willing to or able to actually take the life of another human being, whereas your client was willing to get a gun and shoot two people and kill them," Chief Justice Leigh Saufley said. "Isn’t that in itself enough for a court to justify a sentence that’s longer than those of the co-conspirators in this case?”
Justice Ellen Gorman pointed out that Gayla Sheldon was convicted of criminal conspiracy and criminal solicitation, not murder. Hamel stole a gun that was used in the murders. He pulled the trigger, did it for money and planned it for weeks.
“How could we say this sentence was not warranted?” Gorman asked.
Hamel had no criminal background and had been a special education student since he was 5 years old and had been lonely and teased. Some of the justices quizzed Hess about Hamel’s state of mind at the time of the crimes.
“It does cause us to wonder what it was he was thinking when he agreed to accept $2,000 to kill two people,” Gorman said. Saufley wondered whether he might have been manipulated into action.
Hess said he ordered a forensic evaluation on Hamel and didn’t pursue that line of defense.
Assistant Attorney General Lauren LaRochelle said the sentencing judge recognized Hamel’s role in the murders as the one who pulled the trigger and that he did it for money.
“The court’s balancing of these factors and ultimately imposing a sentence of 45 years for Eric Hamel doesn’t reflect any misapplication of principle or any abuse of discretion,” LaRochelle said, keeping her argument brief.
Alexander wondered whether principle actors in major violent crimes sometimes get sentences that fall short of the significance of the role they played.
“Don’t we have to maybe start looking at that a little more closely?” he asked.
LaRochelle said scheming or desiring something doesn’t make it so. “Had Gayla Sheldon just wished her husband had been dead, he’d still be alive” the prosecutor said.