FARMINGTON — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court upheld the murder conviction Tuesday of a former Jay man who was sentenced in April to 38 years in prison for killing his former girlfriend.

James Sweeney enters Franklin County Superior Court in Farmington for his sentencing on a murder conviction on April 10. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file photo

James E. “Ted” Sweeney, 59, was convicted Feb. 1 at Franklin County Superior Court of knowing murder for fatally bludgeoning Wendy Douglass, 51, with a bat as she slept July 11, 2017, at her home on Jewell Street in Jay.

Douglass had broken broke off a more-than-10-year relationship with Sweeney in June 2017, but then allowed him to stay in a second-floor bedroom.

Sweeney had pleaded not guilty and not criminally responsible by reason of insanity in October 2018.

Jeremy Pratt, the lawyer now representing Sweeney, argued in November the court had erred in admitting certain testimony given by Douglass’ mother. Pratt also challenged Sweeney’s sentence.

According to testimony, Douglass awoke in the middle of the night in March 2017 to find Sweeney standing in her bedroom with a gun in his hands. Douglass’ mother, Cynthia Mulhern, testified her daughter was “nervous and scared and crying” when she arrived at her mother’s house later the same day and said Sweeney had pointed the gun at her face.

Mulhern testified she did not know what time the incident happened but Douglass came immediately to her house and brought the gun with her. The court admitted the mother’s testimony over the defense’s objection.

According to the trial court, the significance of that event was its demonstration that Sweeney “had reached a level of desperation in his relationship with Douglass that he was experiencing suicidal and possibly homicidal ideation.”

Sweeney contended the court had erred in admitting Douglass’ mother’s testimony regarding the gun.

The high court agreed the lower court had made a mistake in allowing the mother’s testimony about the gun, but found the testimony did not unfairly sway the trial’s outcome.

“Although the court erred in admitting the mother’s hearsay testimony, the error here was harmless,” according to the high court’s decision. “An error is harmless when ‘it is highly probable that the error did not affect the factfinder’s judgment.”

In addressing Sweeney’s objections to the mother’s testimony, justices on the high court said the testimony was “instructive on the relationship between Sweeney and (Douglass), and the court also made clear it was not using the testimony as propensity evidence.”

“On the issue of relationship, however, the court had a great deal of additional and pertinent evidence, including a letter Sweeney wrote to (Douglass) after the gun incident, Sweeney’s own description of that incident to two forensic examiners, and the testimony of other witnesses who discussed interaction they saw between Sweeney and (Douglass) and the things they heard Sweeney say about (Douglass),” the justices’ decision reads.

Given this abundant evidence, it is “highly probable … that any error in the court’s consideration of the mother’s testimony did not affect the court’s finding that Sweeney ‘had reached a level of desperation and panic in his relationship with (Douglass),'” according to the decision.

Sweeney’s challenge to his sentence was based on the assertion that the lower court “double counted” the factor of domestic violence in reaching its sentence. There is no support in the record for that assertion, according to the high court’s decision.

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