The Sun Journal is profiling the 8th District Courthouse in Lewiston through the people who work there. We chose the courthouse for a series on Place because of the variety of people who work and visit. In the fourth installment, staff writer Lindsay Tice spends a day with Assistant District Attorney Nick Worden.

LEWISTON – In a courthouse prep room, prosecutor Nick Worden bargained fast and furiously.

Ninety days, he said.

Sixty days, the defense lawyer countered.

Seventy days, Worden offered.

An assistant district attorney for Androscoggin County, Worden was negotiating a plea agreement in 8th District Court, where he prosecutes domestic violence cases for the state.

In the prep room, he held a file filled with graphic photos and reports. Police said the 20-year-old defendant kicked his girlfriend in the groin and beat her last January – eight days after she gave birth. The incident sent her to the hospital.

“This jerk,” Worden had muttered, leafing through the file before the meeting.

He wanted the guy to plead guilty to assault. He wanted him in counseling, with jail time hanging over his head.

But he also needed the victim to show up for court.

The defendant’s girlfriend, like 85 percent of domestic violence victims, didn’t want to testify. Her phone was disconnected. Police hadn’t seen her since February.

Assault, Worden proposed in the meeting.

Reckless endangerment, countered defense lawyer Donald Hornblower.

The file also contained a sort of confession from the defendant. It was a statement that the 32-year-old prosecutor would have been happy to use in a trial. But it was no sure thing.

“He said he ‘lost it,'” Worden said.

He offered a 70-day suspended sentence, one year probation, counseling, no contact with the victim.

After a pause, Hornblower agreed.

Plea bargains are common and often include a mix of suspended jail time, counseling and probation.

But Worden pushes hard for sentences that match the crime.

“The thing that makes you upset is when you hear that he laughed about it. Or he flips off the victim and says, ‘See? I got nothing.’ Those really bother me,” Worden said.

Case by case

Of the 1,100 domestic violence cases in Androscoggin County last year, most involved men who beat up their wives or girlfriends. Less often, women were the abusers.

In the new courthouse on Lisbon Street, Worden handled them all.

The former defense lawyer hopes he is making a difference as a domestic violence prosecutor. He fights for justice, with the freedom to consider the circumstances of each case.

“I mean, now tell me another job in which you get to do that,” he said.

But Worden, an Auburn native with a good sense of humor, doesn’t expect a lot of gratitude.

After three and a half years as a prosecutor, he knows the victims are often as angry with him as the defendants – either because Worden wants to send their loved ones to jail or because he couldn’t get harsher sentences for their abusers.

“People hate you,” he said. “You have to say ‘I know what I’m doing is right and I’m going to keep doing it.'”

On a recent Tuesday, the young husband and father spent his morning dealing with his domestic violence cases and covering criminal court for a vacationing colleague. He darted from the courtroom to the hallway, meeting with defendants, attorneys and witnesses.

Between prisoner arraignments, he met with a young woman who said her ex-boyfriend assaulted her.

“I want a trial. I would like to see him go to jail,” she said immediately.

Setting priorities

Her story was compelling: She said her ex-boyfriend pulled her out of an open truck window, tried to stop her from leaving and hit her friend in the face. The young woman was pregnant at the time.

But Worden believed the alleged attacker’s witnesses would lie about who started the fight. Black-and-white police photos showed the victim with bruises but the photos were not clear.

The defendant’s lawyer had told Worden that his client would accept seven days in jail but only on lesser charges. The man already had one assault conviction on his record and he didn’t want a second. Three is an automatic felony.

Worden told the woman he was willing to take it to trial, but in district court domestic-abuse cases, a seven-day jail sentence is remarkable. “This judge, we’d be lucky if we got a weekend.”

The young woman, her mouth drawn into a tight line, insisted that she wanted a trial. But she suddenly changed her mind as Worden was going over the case with the policemen involved.

Unlike Worden’s morning cases and unlike most of the victims he represents, this woman wanted her abuser convicted of assault.

But even more than that, she needed the ordeal to be over.

And within a few minutes it was. After a short discussion in front of a judge, the ex-boyfriend pleaded guilty to criminal mischief and violating bail. He was sentenced to a week in jail.

In the back of the courtroom, the young woman, her friend, parents and aunt left without a word to Worden.

“There go my happy customers,” he said, watching them walk away. It was his last case of the day.

Drug convictions bring much harsher punishments than domestic violence crimes, Worden said.

“To me, that speaks to where our priorities are,” he said.

That day he got a 70-day suspended sentence in one case. He got a 180-day sentence with all but three days suspended in another. A third case was put on hold.

But at the end of the day, Worden’s thoughts lingered over that last case. He had accepted a plea, gotten the guy a week in jail. But no assault charge. Did he do the right thing?

“I won’t say I’m happy,” he said. “But we did what we could do.”

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