Michael McNaughton

AUGUSTA — An attorney for a Lewiston man found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison argued Friday that the state’s highest court should throw out his conviction and give him a new trial because detectives coerced a confession from him.

Defense attorney Verne Paradie appeared before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court at the Capital Judicial Center on behalf of Michael McNaughton, 29, who was convicted by an Androscoggin County Superior Court jury in 2014.

Paradie appealed McNaughton’s conviction claiming the trial court judge erred when she concluded that the detectives who questioned his client hadn’t violated his right to remain silent and was wrong to deny his motion to suppress his confession. Paradie argued in his written appeal that Androscoggin County Superior Court Justice MaryGay Kennedy shouldn’t have allowed at trial photographs of injuries to McNaughton’s body that were revealed when police seized his clothing that they hadn’t reason to believe would yield evidence they could use at trial.

Paradie also claimed in his brief that prosecutors denied McNaughton his constitutional rights by recklessly and knowingly presenting at trial the false testimony of an alleged accomplice, Nathan Morton, 27, of Greene who was given a “sweetheart deal” in exchange for his testimony against McNaughton.

The high court’s justices appeared most interested on Friday in exploring McNaughton’s self-incriminating statements to local and state detectives that Kennedy allowed prosecutors to introduce at his trial.

McNaughton “repeatedly and clearly told detectives that he did not want to speak with them, that he could not speak to them,” Paradie said during oral arguments before the high court.

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During the first of two interview sessions with police, McNaughton was willing to talk, but not about the 2013 murder of 20-year-old Romeo Parent of Lewiston, who was stabbed and strangled to death, his body stripped of clothing and later dumped in a Monmouth stream, Paradie said Friday.

McNaughton “didn’t want to talk at all” during the second session with detectives, when he repeatedly recited his name and Social Security number for the detectives, Paradie said.

Referring to McNaughton’s repetition of his identification, Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley said: “It looked as if this is a young man saying, ‘Here’s the point at which I deal with you no further.’ And certainly from what we know of military culture that is the response. ‘I will give you this and no more.’ Did the trial court recognize that or accept that?”

McNaughton had served in the U.S. Army and was discharged prior to the slaying of Romeo Parent.

Paradie said one of the detectives recognized the response soldiers who are captured as prisoners of war were trained to recite. “So (the detective) knew that was what (McNaughton) was trying to do,” Paradie said.

The trial judge “said that that argument isn’t sufficient,” Paradie answered Saufley’s question.

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Paradie told the justices that there was no physical evidence that linked McNaughton to the crime scene, other than some scratches on him. There was no DNA found that linked Parent to McNaughton, Paradie said.

For that reason, McNaughton’s statements assumed great importance at trial, Paradie said.

“This confession is huge,” Paradie said. “It’s not only huge, it’s very damning because he talks about it in a manner that when the jury saw that clearly was going to be something very difficult to overcome.”

Justice Andrew Mead reminded Paradie that the standard for police to respond to suspects invoking Miranda rights during interrogations is: “It has to be much more clearly articulated and it’s appropriate for the officer to inquire: ‘What do you mean by that?'” when a suspect makes an ambiguous reference to his right to remain silent.

“‘I don’t want to answer your questions. I don’t want to talk to you,'” Paradie quoted his client from the interrogation transcript.

“I don’t know how much clearer that could be,” Paradie told Mead.

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Justice Thomas Humphrey suggested there appeared to be a “pattern of ambiguity” to McNaughton’s answers that left open to question whether he intended to answer some questions or no more questions at all.

Paradie said his client “finally gave in” after trying to fend off questions “a thousand times” because detectives told him it would help his case to talk.

Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin told the high court that McNaughton hadn’t invoked his Miranda rights until late in the second session of the interrogation. The trial judge correctly barred from trial all statements after that point, Robbin said.

Up to that point, McNaughton was “stonewalling, bobbing and weaving, calculating and manipulating, but he was not invoking his right to remain silent,” she said.

Kennedy, the trial justice did not find “an unequivocal, No!,” until late in the second session of the interrogation, Robbin said.

“Rather, (Kennedy) found that McNaughton’s responses and statements about his willingness to continue the interview were ambiguous at best,” Robbin said.

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Saufley said she was concerned about one point during the interrogation. “It seems to me the officers did the wrong thing,” she said.

When McNaughton said: “‘You are asking some questions and I don’t want to give answers to you, sir.’ Isn’t that the point at which we all say the officers must scrupulously recognize his right to remain silent?” Saufley asked Robbin. “And instead of saying, ‘You don’t want to talk to us? You’re sure about that?’ The officer says: ‘Why?’ and ‘Are you afraid?’ And continues the conversation.”

Why shouldn’t the detective stop asking questions at that point? Saufley asked Robbin.

Robbin said McNaughton had made it clear there were some areas where he wanted to give answers and some where he didn’t.

“When a person being interrogated by law enforcement says: ‘I don’t want to give the answers to you, sir.’ Isn’t that about as clear as we’re going to get from people who are not trained through law enforcement training?” Saufley said.

Robbin said it was not a clear indication by McNaughton in the greater context of the overall interrogation.

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Justice Joseph Jabar asked Robbin whether she would agree that McNaughton would have been invoking his right to remain silent if he had said: “I don’t have to answer any questions,” rather than “every question.” Robbin agreed that would have been clear he was invoking Miranda.

Mead noted the detectives used some “fairly sophisticated techniques” during their interrogation.

“Are we headed to another dimension of coercing confessions” through those techniques? he asked Robbin.

Looking at the totality of the interrogation, “police weren’t using deception, threats, trickery,” she said.

The justices aren’t expected to rule on the appeal anytime soon.

Two hearings were held on McNaughton’s motions for a new trial in 2015. Among other arguments, McNaughton claimed prosecutors failed to provide discovery in a timely manner and presented perjured testimony to support “inconsistent theories” when prosecuting McNaughton as well as co-defendant and alternative suspect William True, 23, of Lewiston who also was convicted of Parent’s murder in December 2014, five months after McNaughton. True was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

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Prosecutors downplayed the defense’s appeal claim, saying the after-trial evidence wouldn’t have resulted in a different verdict. Justice Kennedy largely agreed with that assessment.

Parent had implicated True in a burglary before Parent was killed. The apparent motive for Parent’s killing was that he had informed police of True’s involvement in the burglary. True had been charged in that crime; Parent had not.

Morton, who admitted driving McNaughton to the wooded area in Greene where Parent was killed, testified at McNaughton’s trial that the defendant admitted stabbing and choking Parent to death. But Morton later told police that True also had been at the scene of the murder. Morton, who also had been charged with Parent’s murder, agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for his testimony and a 20-year prison sentence, with half of that time suspended.

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