AUGUSTA — Relatives and friends of Jillian Jones watched an attorney argue Thursday that Justin Pillsbury, the man convicted a year ago of her murder, deserves a new trial because statements made by the prosecutor “pandered to sympathy, prejudice and bias of the jury.”
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Thursday heard oral arguments at the Capital Judicial Center.
“In this case a black man was charged with murdering a white woman, and it’s because of those facts that the court took precautions before trial to reduce the chance that racial bias could influence the verdict in this case,” attorney Caleb Gannon argued on behalf of Pillsbury. “After all, the last census indicates the state of Maine is the least diverse state in the nation, and issues of race impact central Maine the same way they do in other parts of the country.”
Jones, 24, died of stab wounds Nov. 13, 2013, in an apartment in Augusta.
Pillsbury, 42, who is serving 50 years in prison for the slaying, was not present for the arguments.
The court generally issues its opinions in writing, and the decisions usually are announced months after oral arguments.
Gannon argued that an opening statement by the prosecutor, Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber, referring to a “green-eyed monster” was improper and encouraged jurors to convict Pillsbury “on something other than the evidence.”
Chief Justice Leigh Saufley read aloud Macomber’s remarks as they appear in the trial transcript: “The prosecutor asks. ‘Why did Justin Pillsbury stab Jillian Jones to death? Because he was jealous. Jealousy has been described as a green-eyed monster. Well, ladies and gentlemen, on Nov. 13, 2013, that green-eyed monster was uncaged at apartment six of 32 Crosby St. here in Augusta.’ ”
Then Saufley asked Gannon what is racist in the statement.
Gannon said it was Macomber describing Pillsbury as a “green-eyed monster.”
Associate Justice Ellen Gorman interrupted Gannon almost immediately, saying, “No, jealousy is a green-eyed monster. In no way did Mr. Macomber refer to your client as a monster. He referred to the Shakespearean (depiction) of jealousy as a monster.”
Defense attorneys the next day sought a mistrial because of the remark, but it was denied by Justice Michaela Murphy, who presided at the trial.
Saufley told Gannon, “I’m still having some difficulty in determining how (the opening statement) is a call to the jury to think about the matter in racial terms rather than on the basis of the evidence presented.”
Gannon said the controlling issue for the Maine Supreme Judicial Court is “the likely effect on the jury of using the term ‘uncaged monster’ when the defendant is a large, African-American man.”
Macomber defended his opening statement.
“My motivation had nothing whatsoever to do with race,” he told the seven justices of the supreme court.
Jones’ body was found slumped against the bathroom wall in the Crosby Street apartment of Michael St. Pierre.
At trial, Pillsbury testified he had acted in self-defense. He said Jones picked up a knife and threatened him after he refused to return her phone to her.