Noah Gaston walks to the defense table during his murder trial in Cumberland County Superior Court in Portland on Nov. 13, 2019. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Thursday rejected Noah Gaston’s appeal of his murder conviction for killing his wife at their Windham home in 2016 in a ruling that also leaves intact his lengthy prison sentence.

In a 19-page ruling, the justices said the trial judge acted correctly when she sentenced Gaston to 40 years, and did not prevent him from having a fair public trial and sentencing because of the health and safety restrictions that the COVID-19 pandemic imposed on courtrooms across Maine last year.

Gaston shot and killed his wife on the stairs of their home on Jan. 14, 2016. He told police that he mistook 34-year-old Alicia Gaston for an intruder in the early morning darkness. Prosecutors said Gaston either meant to kill her or shot her knowing that she was the person on the steps. The defense argued that Gaston was acting in self-defense because he believed his wife was an intruder.

Alicia Gaston Press Herald file photo

Gaston was convicted on a single count of murder following a jury trial in November 2019 that lasted eight days. His sentencing was delayed in early 2020 because of the pandemic, but on June 17, 2020, Gaston’s lawyers filed a motion to continue the sentencing hearing on the grounds that courtroom health and safety measures restricted his due process rights.

The trial judge, Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy, denied the motion by Gaston after considering the need to balance access to courtrooms with the health and safety of participants, the four years that had passed since the fatal shooting took place, and Gaston’s constitutional right to a speedy trial.

Later that same month in 2020, Murphy sentenced Gaston to 40 years in prison. His attorney, Rob Andrews, had requested a 25-year sentence, while prosecutors had sought 40 years. The maximum sentence for murder in Maine is life imprisonment; the minimum is 25 years. Gaston is 38.

At the sentencing hearing, Murphy set the basic sentence at 35 years. The judge described the slaying of Alicia Gaston as a “completely unprovoked, impulsive act of domestic violence, but placed it in the lower quartile of basic sentences,” the supreme court said in its ruling Thursday.

The trial judge capped the number of people in the courtroom at the hearing at 10, so others gave their statements on video or entered the courtroom only briefly to speak. Gaston’s attorneys argued that the sentencing hearing violated his rights to a public trial because courtroom capacity was limited and some people were allowed to address the court by videoconference.

In his appeal to the supreme court, Gaston challenged the lower court’s denial of his claim of religious privilege involving the statements he made to members of his church, its refusal to use his requested jury instructions, its denial of his motion to continue the sentencing hearing, and its calculation of both the basic and maximum sentence.

The supreme court on Thursday rejected all of those arguments, essentially upholding Gaston’s conviction and the 40-year sentence imposed by the lower court.

“In sum, the court misapplied no legal principles in setting Gaston’s basic sentence at 35 years, and it acted well within its discretion when, after considering the aggravating and mitigating factors, it set Gaston’s maximum sentence at 40 years,” the justices ruled.

“We are also not persuaded by Gaston’s arguments that he was denied a public trial,” the justices added, addressing Gaston’s concerns about the sentencing hearing. “The goals advanced by the public-trial guarantee are to ensure a fair trial, to remind the prosecutor and judge of their responsibility to the accused and the importance of their functions, to encourage witnesses to come forward, and to discourage perjury.”

“Even if these goals applied to a sentencing hearing, the court crafted a thorough and thoughtful plan that ensured that the hearing was safely open to the public so that the case, which had been going on for four years, could finally reach a conclusion,” the justices wrote.

“In creating this plan, the court properly considered Gaston’s constitutional rights while balancing the safety restrictions needed during the pandemic. Anyone who wanted to address the court or access the proceeding was able to do so, despite the pandemic restrictions. The court did not abuse its discretion by denying the motion to continue, and the sentencing hearing did not result in actual prejudice.”

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