A former Maine State Police trooper pleaded guilty Wednesday to domestic violence assault in a case that ended his career and raised questions about whether the trooper’s supervisors failed to immediately investigate his criminal behavior after they received reports of abuse from his ex-wife.

Former Trooper Justin “Jay” Cooley is pictured in 2014. Courtesy of the Maine State Police Facebook page

Justin “Jay” Cooley, 50, pleaded guilty to one count of domestic violence assault for hitting his ex-wife, Amy Burns, in May 2019 at their home in Wales. Cooley admitted to the assault in a text message that Burns provided to police and prosecutors.

Burns’ experience was featured in a three-part series examining a lack of transparency surrounding the Maine State Police disciplinary process that was published jointly by the Portland Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News and funded by the Pulitzer Center. The investigation found that Cooley’s supervisors waited weeks to initiate a criminal investigation, and in the interim sent him to an in-patient rehabilitation center in Florida to address his drinking problem.

Cooley never returned to work after he was charged, went on leave and resigned from the force in January. He was never disciplined.

Burns filed a complaint against her ex-husband’s supervisors, although they did not face any discipline themselves because the agency said it lacked enough evidence to prove or disprove her claims. Only after Burns sent Cooley’s sergeant the text message in which Cooley admitted to committing domestic violence assault did they turn over Burns’ case to an outside agency, which promptly investigated her claims and brought charges.

As part of the plea agreement, prosecutors agreed to dismiss a second count of domestic violence abuse and one count of domestic violence stalking. Cooley received a 364-day suspended jail sentence and two years probation, meaning he will serve no time unless he fails to comply with the conditions of the agreement.

The sentence handed down by Superior Court Justice Valerie Stanfill also requires that Cooley attend a 48-week batterer’s intervention course, abstain from drinking alcohol or taking drugs and refrain from having contact with Burns or her adult son, who was also a target of his abuse.

Justin Cooley’s mug shot. Courtesy of the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Office

Cooley declined to make a statement during the sentencing, but his attorney, Allan Lobozzo, said Cooley has received treatment for his drinking problem and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, resulting in him being declared disabled. 

“He was obviously deeply immersed in his own alcoholism as a way to cope with it at the time these events occurred,” Lobozzo said. “He took an oath, which he was not able to uphold and I think he mourns that as much as anybody else. He’s lost his job, his profession and as Ms. Burns pointed out, his reputation. So he stands before the court ready to go on probation, to fulfill his probationary obligations, and to move on as a law-abiding member of society.”

Stanfill, before handing down the sentence, said Cooley’s 22 years of service as a trooper were both a mitigating and an aggravating factor in her analysis.

“When one holds such a position, one is really held to a higher standard of trust, of respect,” Stanfill said. “There is an oath. So the fall from that is really a major breach of trust, both to the individual involved, Ms. Burns, as well as to society. Because we demand that our law enforcement officers uphold a certain level of integrity and behavior, that was not done here.”

Amy Burns is the ex-wife of former Maine State Police trooper Justin Cooley. When she reported the abuse to the state police, she claims that the commanders either did not want to hear it, or they did not believe her, and they failed to intervene and stop the domestic violence. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Burns, of Wales, spoke at length during the hearing, and said while Cooley’s sentence will some day end, the terror and trauma he caused will continue to haunt her. She is fearful every time she goes outside with her dogs that he could be lurking nearby.

“How can I be sure that one day he will not get drunk and decide that I need to pay for standing up for myself?” Burns said, speaking remotely via a Zoom video link. “My hands are shaking as I read this impact statement, and the fear I have has not subsided.”

Burns says that since Cooley was a sworn officer at the time of the assault, she believes he should be held to a higher standard. Every police officer in Maine receives training on how to recognize domestic violence situations, which she thinks should make him more culpable, Burns said.

But the law does not differentiate between domestic abusers who are also members of law enforcement, and Cooley’s sentence is in line with what many first-time offenders receive in domestic violence assault cases.

Beyond the fear of Cooley’s ability to commit more violence, the dissolution of their relationship and marriage left Burns without a second household income. She fell behind on her mortgage and came close to foreclosure, she said.

While the hearing did not bring Burns closure, she was happy she had a chance to address her ex-husband directly, and to tell him how she felt.

“At least he had to listen. I don’t know if he heard me,” Burns said in an interview after the proceeding. “As a person, I hope he gets help, you know? For his sake and for everyone else’s sake he encounters.”

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