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State v. Sweeney

Supreme Court of Maine

December 10, 2019

STATE OF MAINE
v.
JAMES E. SWEENEY

          Argued: November 6, 2019

          Jeremy Pratt, Esq. (orally), and Ellen Simmons, Esq., Camden, for appellant James E. Sweeney.

          Aaron M. Frey, Attorney General, and Leanne Robbin, Asst. Atty. Gen. (orally), Office of the Attorney General, Augusta, for appellee State of Maine.

          Panel: SAUFLEY, C.J., and ALEXANDER, MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, HJELM, and HUMPHREY, JJ.

          GORMAN, J.

         [¶1] James E. Sweeney appeals from a judgment of conviction of murder, 17-A M.R.S. § 201 (2018), entered by the court (Franklin County, Stokes, J.) after a jury-waived trial. Sweeney argues that the court erred in admitting certain testimony given by the mother of the woman[1] he killed; he also challenges his sentence. After careful review, we affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual and Procedural History

         [¶2] The court made the following findings of fact, which are supported by competent record evidence from the trial. See State v. Fournier, 2019 ME 28, ¶ 2, 203 A.3d 801. In the summer of 2017, Sweeney and W.D. had been romantically involved with one another for over a decade. Witnesses who knew the couple described the relationship as generally "good," but in the spring of 2017, Sweeney became increasingly jealous and suspicious that W.D. was involved with other men. Even though W.D. and everyone who knew the couple assured Sweeney that his suspicions were unfounded, Sweeney was "unmoved."

         [¶3] In March of 2017, W.D. woke in the middle of the night to find Sweeney standing in her bedroom with a gun in his hands. According to the trial court, the significance of that event was its demonstration that "[Sweeney] had reached [such] a level of desperation and panic in his relationship with [W.D.] that he was experiencing suicidal and possibly homicidal ideation."

         [¶4] Three months later, in June of 2017, W.D. told Sweeney that their relationship was over but that he could remain living in her house, at least for a while. Early in the morning of July 11, 2017, while W.D. was asleep, Sweeney entered her bedroom and violently struck her face and head with a wooden bat. W.D. died as a result of that blunt force trauma.

         [¶5] On August 23, 2017, Sweeney was indicted on one count of intentional or knowing murder, 17-A M.R.S. § 201(1)(A). He entered pleas of not guilty and not criminally responsible by reason of insanity, see M.R.U. Crim. P. 11(a)(1), and waived his right to a jury trial, see M.R.U. Crim. P. 23(a).

         [¶6] At trial, which was held over the course of six days in January and February of 2019, the State called W.D.'s mother to testify about the March 2017 incident. The mother stated that early in the morning on that day, W.D. had arrived at her house "nervous and scared and crying," telling her that Sweeney had "woken [W.D.] up with a gun pointing in her face." The mother also testified that, although she did not know exactly what time the incident had occurred, "whenever it happened, [W.D.] came immediately when she got the gun [away from Sweeney] and brought it to my house." Over Sweeney's objection, the court admitted the mother's testimony pursuant to the present sense impression exception to the rule against hearsay. See M.R. Evid. 803(1). The court also ruled that, contrary to the State's position, the statement was not admissible pursuant to the excited utterance exception, M.R. Evid. 803(2).

         [¶7] On February 1, 2019, the court found Sweeney guilty of the murder and continued the ...


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