Argued: November 7, 2018
Heather Nadeau, Esq. (orally), The Law Office of Tina Heather
Nadeau, PLLC, Portland, and Rory A. McNamara, Esq., Drake
Law, LLC, Berwick, for appellant Reginald J. Dobbins Jr.
T. Mills, Attorney General, and John Alsop, Asst. Atty. Gen.
(orally), Office of the Attorney General, Augusta, for
appellee State of Maine
SAUFLEY, C.J., and ALEXANDER, MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, HJELM, and
On an evening in March of 2015, a sixty-one-year-old man was
bludgeoned and stabbed to death in his Houlton residence.
Reginald J. Dobbins Jr. was charged with murder, found guilty
by a jury, and sentenced by the court (Aroostook County,
Stewart, J.) to sixty-five years in prison. Dobbins
appeals the resulting judgment of conviction. He asserts that
the court erred by excluding certain evidence purporting to
show that his friend, Samuel Geary, was responsible for the
murder, including evidence that Geary had pleaded guilty to
murdering the same man. Dobbins also contends that the
sentence is unconstitutional because it "condemns
Dobbins to die in prison for a crime that happened when he
was just 18 years old." We conclude that the court erred
by excluding evidence of Geary's guilty plea to the
murder charge but that the error was harmless due to the
magnitude and strength of the evidence that was admitted to
demonstrate both Geary's and Dobbins's guilt. We are
unpersuaded by the remainder of Dobbins's arguments and
affirm the judgment.
We describe the background of this case based on the evidence
seen in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict,
see State v. Davis, 2018 ME 116, ¶ 2, 191 A.3d
1147, and the procedural record.
On March 1, 2015, the victim was killed in his mobile home,
which was ransacked. An autopsy revealed that the victim had
sustained twenty-one blunt-trauma injuries to his arms,
torso, and head, and ten sharp-instrument injuries to his
head and back. Most of the victim's head trauma was
caused by the face and claw of a hammer that was used to
brutally fracture his skull and lacerate his brain. The stab
wounds, caused by a knife, penetrated the victim's lungs.
Dobbins, who was eighteen years old at the time of the
murder, was arrested about a week later and charged with
intentional or knowing murder, see 17-A M.R.S.
§ 201(1)(A) (2018). He was indicted for that charge in
May of 2015 and pleaded not guilty. Samuel Geary was sixteen
years old at the time of the murder and was charged with
murder in Juvenile Court but was later bound over to be tried as
an adult, see 15 M.R.S. § 3101(4) (2018). In
May of 2016, the State filed a notice of joinder of the
charges pending against Dobbins and Geary. See
M.R.U. Crim. P. 8(b). Dobbins opposed joinder in part on the
ground that, because Dobbins and Geary each contended that
the other was responsible for the murder, their theories of
the case were too antagonistic to allow for a fair trial if
their cases were joined. The court ordered that the cases be
joined for trial, but in May of 2017 Geary pleaded guilty to
the murder charge. His sentencing hearing was continued until
after Dobbins's trial was to be held.
The court held an eight-day jury trial in Dobbins's case
in June of 2017. The State's theory of the case was not
specific as to whether Dobbins was the principal or an
accomplice to Geary. Dobbins's defense was that Geary
murdered the victim "while Dobbins stood by in
shock." During the trial, the State wanted to call Geary
as a witness, but Geary's attorney informed the court
that Geary would invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege against
self-incrimination and refuse to testify. Dobbins argued that
for Geary to be able to assert the privilege, the State was
required to call him as a witness. The court denied
Dobbins's request but held a hearing outside the presence
of the jury where, after Geary was placed under oath, he
invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege. The court dismissed
Geary as a witness, and he did not testify before the jury.
Dobbins offered in evidence words that Geary had carved into
the surface of a wooden shelf in his room where he was being
held pretrial at the Mountain View Youth Development
Center. The statement said: "Every one has a
story, whats urs?" Below that was, "1)
Murder." Dobbins offered this as a statement made by
Geary against interest pursuant to Maine Rule of Evidence
804(b)(3). Additionally, Dobbins sought to admit a certified
copy of a court docket entry documenting Geary's guilty
plea to the murder charge. The State objected to the
admission of both forms of evidence. Outside the presence of
the jury, the parties conducted voir dire of the Mountain
View staff member who had discovered a number of Geary's
carved statements, including the one quoted above. After the
parties were heard on the admissibility of the evidence
offered by Dobbins, the court excluded evidence of both the
carving and the guilty plea, concluding that none of that
evidence constituted an admissible statement against
interest. Regarding the evidence of Geary's guilty plea,
the court also concluded that the risk of unfair prejudice to
the State would not be sufficiently ameliorated by a limiting
instruction, which Dobbins proposed, advising the jury that
evidence of the plea did not have the effect of exonerating
After the close of the evidence, the court instructed the
jury that it could consider Dobbins's guilt as either a
principal or an accomplice to murder. After deliberations,
the jury found Dobbins guilty. At a hearing held in October
of 2017, the court sentenced Dobbins to a prison term of
sixty-five years. Dobbins applied for leave to appeal his
sentence, which was denied by the Sentence Review Panel.
See 15 M.R.S. §§ 2151, 2152 (2018); M.R.
App. P. 20. Dobbins also filed a timely appeal from the
judgment. 15 M.R.S. § 2115 (2018); M.R. App. P.
On appeal, Dobbins raises two categories of challenges. He
first argues that the trial court erred by concluding that
neither the evidence of Geary's carving nor the court
record of Geary's guilty plea was admissible pursuant to
Rule 804(b)(3) and that the exclusion of that evidence
deprived him of a constitutionally sufficient opportunity to
present a defense. He also asserts that the sixty-five-year
prison sentence violates the Eighth Amendment to the United
States Constitution and Article I, section 9 of the Maine
Constitution. We address these issues in turn.
Dobbins contends that the court "mechanistically
applied" the Maine Rules of Evidence so as to deny him
the opportunity to present a complete defense in violation of
his constitutional rights under the Sixth and Fourteenth
The core of Dobbins's arguments relates to evidentiary
principles governing the admissibility of hearsay evidence.
We review a trial court's decision to admit or exclude
hearsay evidence for an abuse of discretion, State v.
Watson, 2016 ME 176, ¶ 10, 152 A.3d 152, and we
review an alleged constitutional violation de novo, State
v. Hassan, 2018 ME 22, ¶ 11, l79A.3d898.
Evidence of Geary's Carving
Geary's words were found carved into a wooden shelf in
his room at Mountain View and stated, "Every one has a
story, whats urs? 1) Murder." That statement was near
others, also made by Geary, which said things such as
"do or die," "no salvation," and
"talk shit, get hit." Dobbins contends that the
court erroneously concluded that the statement that included
the reference to murder is not admissible hearsay pursuant to
Maine Rule of Evidence 804(b)(3) and that this error
contributed to a violation of his constitutional right to
present a defense.
Dobbins offered the statement as Geary's admission that
he was involved in committing the murder. See M.R.
Evid. 801. Because the statement was offered to prove its
truth, it was admissible at trial only if, among other
things, it fell within an exception to the general rule that
bars the admission of hearsay evidence. See M.R.
Evid. 802. The exception at issue here is Rule 804(b)(3).
Subject to a limitation not applicable here, Rule 804(b)(3)
creates an exception to the general prohibition against the
admission of hearsay for a statement that is against the
declarant's interest. In the context of this case, the
foundation for the admissibility of hearsay pursuant to Rule
804(b)(3) comprises three elements: (1) the declarant is
"unavailable" to testify within the meaning of Rule
804(a); (2) the statement is contrary to the declarant's
interests to a degree that a reasonable person would not have
made the statement unless he believed it to be true; and (3)
there exist clear indications demonstrating the
statement's trustworthiness. M.R. Evid. 804(b)(3). We
have stated that the last of these factors implicates
following four additional factors:
1. the time of the declaration and the party to whom it was
2. the existence of corroborating evidence in the case;
3. whether the declaration is inherently inconsistent with
the accused's guilt; and
4. whether at the time of the incriminating statement the
declarant had any probable motive to falsify.
State v. Small, 2003 ME 107, ¶ 25, 830 A.2d 423
(citing State v. Cochran, 2000 ME 78, ¶ 12, 749
Here, there is no dispute that Geary was unavailable as a
witness because he legitimately invoked his privilege against
self-incrimination. See M.R. Evid. 804(a)(1). The
question is whether the evidence of Geary's carving meets
the other two elements of a statement against interest. In
excluding the evidence, the court concluded that the meaning
and purpose of the statement were unexplained and unknown. In
other words, the content of Geary's statement is
enigmatic to the point that it does not carry meaningful
indicia that he intended the statement to be against his
interest. The court legitimately hypothesized that, if the
statement had anything to do with this murder in the first
place, the statement could well have been an accusation by
Geary that someone else-Dobbins, for example-committed it.
The court further concluded that the additional carved
statements, such as "do or die," "no
salvation," and "talk shit, get hit,"
contributed to the uncertainty about what Geary meant by the
Additionally, the court found that there remained a material
question of whether Geary had an incentive to be truthful
when he made the statement because the reasons why he created
the statement were undeveloped in the record. As the court
noted, because it is not clear what Geary was trying to
express, it cannot be determined whether the statement was
The court did not abuse its discretion as gatekeeper by
concluding that, given the ambiguities and unanswered
questions surrounding the statement, Geary's carved words
did not have the "persuasive assurances of
trustworthiness" necessary to bring it "well within
the basic rationale" of the hearsay exception. See
Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U.S. 284, 302 (1973).
Further, the exclusion of the evidence did not deprive
Dobbins of his constitutional right to present a meaningful
defense. See id.; see also State v. Burbank, 2019 ME
37, ¶ 22, 204 A.3d 851 ("State rulemakers have
broad latitude under the Constitution to establish rules
excluding evidence from criminal trials so long as those
rules are not 'arbitrary' or 'disproportionate to
the purposes they are designed to serve.'"
(alterations and quotation marks omitted)).
Evidence of Geary's Guilty Plea
Dobbins next contends that the court erred by excluding from
evidence the docket entry in Geary's case showing that
Geary had entered a guilty plea to the murder charge. Dobbins
argues both that the court erred by not analyzing the
admissibility of the guilty plea under the public record
exception to the hearsay rule, M.R. Evid. 803(8),
that its exclusion contributed to the deprivation of
Dobbins's constitutional rights. Dobbins is correct that
the court abused its discretion by excluding the docket entry
showing Geary's guilty plea, but, given the substantial
body of evidence of both Dobbins's and Geary's
criminal involvement in the murder that was
presented to the jury, the court's error was harmless.
The docket entry of Geary's guilty plea to the murder
charge contains two layers of hearsay: first, it represents
an out-of-court statement by Geary-his guilty plea itself;
and, second, it is an out-of-court written statement by a
court employee that Geary had entered that plea. See
M.R. Evid. 801(c). When a statement contains multiple layers
of hearsay, each layer must be analyzed individually and
determined to be admissible for the underlying hearsay
statement ultimately to be admissible. See M.R.
Evid. 805 ("Hearsay within hearsay is not excluded by
the rule against hearsay if each part of the combined
statements conforms with an exception to the rule.").
Consequently, Dobbins was required ...