AUGUSTA — A man allegedly involved in a drive-by shooting of a 7-year-old Waterville girl withdrew his planned guilty plea after video conferencing problems interrupted court proceedings Wednesday.

Jeremiah Gamblin Waterville Police photo

Jeremiah D. Gamblin, 21, of China, now faces a potential jury trial on the original elevated aggravated assault charge for his alleged role in the Feb. 28 drive-by shooting in which then-7-year-old Emahleeah Frost was shot while in her family’s Waterville apartment.

He had been expected to plead guilty to a lesser charge as part of a plea agreement, but changed his mind after the video issues arose during his morning appearance. So, Wednesday afternoon Gamblin was brought from Kennebec County jail to the Capital Judicial Center, where he withdrew his plea and rejected the deal. If convicted in a jury trial, he now faces a sentence of up to 30 years in prison.

State prosecutors had agreed that Gamblin appeared to be an accomplice to Gavin Tyler Loabe, 19, of Mercer, in the shooting. The pair were indicted in July, both on charges of elevated aggravated assault, and Gamblin also on a charge of assault.

On Wednesday morning, Gamblin, who is being held at Kennebec County jail, pleaded guilty over a video conferencing system to a class C charge of assault, which is punishable by up to five years imprisonment. He was on video from the jail, virtually joining his attorney Merritt T. Heminway, who was connecting via video from his office, and Justice Michaela Murphy and state prosecutors in a courtroom at the judicial center.

Prosecutor Christopher Coleman, an assistant district attorney, said the elevated aggravated assault charge would be dismissed as long as Gamblin honored an agreement in which he would cooperate with the state as it prosecuted Loabe. Coleman later said police believed Loabe to be both the shooter and the driver in the shooting.

Murphy noted the state was pursuing the case as one of “accomplice liability,” which in Maine means an accomplice in a crime can be charged with the same crime as the primary actor in that crime. As she sought to explain that and Heminway also sought to discuss that topic with his client, glitches with the video conferencing system made it difficult to hear Heminway in the courtroom. Gamblin also expressed difficulty hearing and confusion about the proceedings.

In response, Murphy suggested if there was confusion due to the video conference proceedings, Gamblin could be brought into court in person. Both Gamblin and Heminway agreed an in-person appearance would be better than trying to speak over the glitchy video conferencing system. Video conferencing has been used regularly as part of social distancing efforts in the court system in an effort to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“If you’re saying your representation has been hampered and you feel rushed to get this in, this may be a case where we have to bring Mr. Gamblin into the courtroom and do it the old fashioned way,” Murphy said. “That’s something we’re trying not to do, but I think we may need to in this case.”

After Gamblin met with Heminway in person at the courthouse, the court hearing resumed and Gamblin withdrew his plea.

“I was feeling pressured,” Gamblin, wearing a green jail uniform, shackles and a black face mask, said of his earlier guilty plea.

Heminway said he thinks the case is one that, despite taking place “in these COVID times” would have benefited from a more traditional, in-person dispositional conference in which both parties try to work out an agreement, often with the involvement of the judge.

Murphy said while the state can withdraw the now-rejected offer, that Gamblin would have more time to decide how he wants to proceed.

She said if it goes to a jury trial, that may not happen until June. The court system has a backlog of cases due to being closed or partially closed for months due to the coronavirus pandemic. The next scheduled court proceeding for Gamblin will be an October hearing on an alleged probation violation.

Coleman presented details of the case that have not previously been made public by police, who have previously declined to identify which of the two allegedly did the shooting.

Drive-by shooting victim Emahleeah Frost, 7, on her way back to Waterville on March 5 after being discharged from a Portland hospital where she was treated for a bullet lodged between two vertebrae in her back. Submitted photo

Coleman said in court Emahleeah was sitting in her bedroom at her family’s Waterville apartment when five bullets struck the side of the building, one piercing a window and striking the girl in the chest.

“She was hospitalized and treated for the gunshot wound; she expressed extreme pain,” Coleman said of Emahleeah, who was released from the hospital in March with the bullet still in her back. “Indeed the bullet will likely remain in her spine for life.”

He said police have recordings of an interview with Gamblin in which he said Loabe was the driver and the shooter in the incident. In that interview, Coleman said, Gamblin acknowledged being with Loabe during the shooting and when the two first drove by the apartment without shooting.

He said Gamblin videotaped the shooting on his phone. After the shooting Loabe allegedly gave the gun to Gamblin, Coleman said, and the two drove to Skowhegan together. Coleman said Gamblin knew the neighborhood where the shooting took place, while Loabe did not.

Loabe, according to Coleman, shot up the 42 Summer St. apartment building because he mistakenly believed another man, a Thomas Vigue, lived there, which he does not. Vigue had allegedly texted Loabe’s girlfriend, propositioning her for sex and angering Loabe, who saw the text.

Murphy took several pleas from defendants in other cases Wednesday, asking defendants appearing by video conference whether they were comfortable pleading guilty to crimes virtually, instead of in person. Most indicated they were not concerned by the process.

However one other defendant, Justin Lugo, accused of drug trafficking and other crimes, also said he did not feel comfortable with the process of pleading guilty by video conferencing.

“Personally I don’t feel comfortable pleading guilty through video, but I feel I don’t have a choice,” Lugo responded when Murphy noted the proceeding was done in an unusual way and asked if he had any objection to proceeding by video.

Lugo’s court proceeding was thus rescheduled, to an in-person appearance in court Thursday morning.

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