I have two carefully chosen words for Joel Hayden, the two-time murderer who clearly has too much time on his hands in the Maine State Prison in Warren.
Hayden, 32, was not in attendance Wednesday when Clifford Strike, his court-appointed attorney, went through the motions of arguing Hayden’s post-conviction appeal before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
Still, the half-hour proceeding – a waste of the state’s time if ever there was one – was held for one inescapable reason:
“My client wanted to appeal,” Strike said after trying, in all likelihood without success, to convince a skeptical court that his guy shouldn’t be serving two consecutive life sentences in the big house. “I don’t do an appeal if my client doesn’t want one.”
Before we get to that appeal, let’s look back on the crime.
It was the summer of 2011 and Renee Sandora was done with Hayden, her longtime boyfriend and the father of their four children, who made a living dealing illicit drugs when he wasn’t taking them himself. Long story short, Sandora told Hayden she wanted him out of the trailer in New Gloucester where they and the kids lived.
Trevor Mills, a friend of Hayden’s, had come up from Massachusetts to talk some sense into his buddy. It didn’t work. So Mills stuck around to at least help Hayden move out.
Instead, on July 25, 2011, Hayden grabbed his gun and shot Mills four times. Then, while Sandora tried to corral the kids into her car and flee, Hayden turned the gun on her.
“What are you going to kill me in front of my kids?” she screamed at him while a 911 line, which Sandora had called in desperation after the first shot penetrated her arm and abdomen, recorded her final words.
That’s exactly what he did. What’s more, Hayden is now behind bars in large part because the oldest of those kids – his then-7-year-old son, Ja’kai – had the guts to testify in open court last year that he watched as his father “shot my mom.”
Premeditation? Not only did Hayden buy ammo and go target shooting with his Colt. 45 in the days before the killings, but one of his drug customers testified that he told her he was “going to kill that bitch and get his boy too.”
Mental state? Hayden knew enough immediately after the shootings to hop in Mills’ black Cadillac and lead police on a high-speed chase through five York County towns before finally crashing in a futile attempt to run a police roadblock in Lyman.
Legitimate grounds for appeal? Let’s toss that one to Hayden’s attorney, who, to be fair, was only doing his job.
“I didn’t have as much to work with as I would have liked to,” Strike conceded after the court adjourned.
Hayden’s appeal follows two painfully predictable tracks:
First, his attorney argued, he was too drug-addled on the day in question to know what he was doing.
Despite all that trash talk in the days leading up to the shootings, despite his NASCAR-worthy driving in the hours that immediately followed, Hayden wants us to chalk it all up to what Strike called the “cornucopia of illegal and highly potent medications” allegedly coursing through Hayden’s veins.
Put more simply, Hayden wants us to believe the “oxy” made him do it.
Second, Strike maintained, the two concurrent life sentences handed down by Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills were excessive and quite possibly payback for Hayden’s decision to refuse a plea deal and go to trial – and in the process force his young son to relive the trauma by testifying against his own father.
The sentencing record supports no such claim.
At times, Wednesday’s hearing bordered on theater of the absurd. After Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber mentioned the .45-caliber murder weapon in his argument, Strike countered that the gun was never found and therefore nobody knows for sure if it was a .45 or some other type of high-caliber firearm.
Asked an incredulous Justice Ellen Gorman, “Are you contesting Mr. Hayden’s guilt?”
Replied Strike, “I’m just trying to correct the record, your honor.”
Justice Warren Silver persisted, “You don’t say, ‘He wasn’t the guy who fired the bullets?’”
“Well,” countered Strike, “he didn’t say that he did, judge.”
Leave it to Justice Gorman, in a half-minute of perfect clarity, to cut to the heart of this case: “We understood Mr. Hayden had a significant criminal record to begin with, walking through the door. We have premeditation demonstrated by his speaking to someone the day before the murders and actually going on target practice. We have multiple murders. We have extreme cruelty, the judge found, as to Renee – she knew she was actually being shot in front of her children as she explained in the 911 tape. We have him being a felon in possession of a gun. And we have these children being present at the time that he commits these heinous acts. Could anything other than two life sentences have been imposed in this case?”
If it please the court, other punishments do come to mind. If only they were enshrined in Maine’s criminal sentencing guidelines.
Patrice Gerber, Sandora’s mother, is now raising Ja’kai and his three siblings in her and her husband’s home not far from the scene of the double murder. After Wednesday’s hearing, Gerber sounded wearily resigned to the likelihood that Hayden will spend years looking for ways to deflect what is, was and always will be his sole responsibility for two people’s gruesome deaths.
(In his profile for an online prisoner pen pal program, Hayden now claims: “I got setup for a crime I didn’t commit. The truth will set me free; I will leave everything in the Gods hands until my future appeal processes.”)
“It just doesn’t feel like it’s ever going to be over,” Gerber said. “Because he’s going to appeal and appeal and appeal …”
Prosecutor Macomber reluctantly agreed. Next up after the court denies this appeal, he predicted, will be Hayden’s claim that he suffered from incompetent counsel.
“When you’re sitting in a prison cell and you’ve got nothing else to do for 40 or 50 years, you might as well avail yourself of the process,” Macomber said. “I’ve been doing this 25 years this fall and I can count on one hand the number of people who haven’t taken this step – to appeal to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court – after being convicted of murder.”
That is, to be sure, Hayden’s right. But as he sits in his cell contemplating his next move, he’d do well to reflect on his son, now 9, who knew nothing of this week’s proceeding but has told his grandmother he’ll testify again if he has to.
As Paula Beaulieu, Gerber’s supportive cousin, noted outside the courtroom, the state’s star witness remains one of the few bright lights in this darkest of family tragedies.
“He marched (into the trial) like a soldier,” Beaulieu said. “And he marched out a hero.”
Which makes young Ja’kai, still shy of his 10th birthday, twice the man his father ever will be.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: