A judge decided that police did not coerce a confession from a man accused of shooting a Somerset County sheriff’s deputy last year, but threw out a videotaped reenactment of the killing.

John D. Williams, 30, has pleaded not guilty to murder in the death of Cpl. Eugene Cole last April. Cole, 61, was the first Maine police officer fatally shot in the line of duty in three decades. Superior Court Justice Robert Mullen issued his ruling one day after the one-year anniversary of the killing. The ruling means prosecutors will be able to use the confession portion of the video at trial.

Defense attorneys had asked Mullen to throw out all statements Williams made to law enforcement on the day of his arrest because he was beaten by police and experiencing severe withdrawal from opiates at the time. The judge heard arguments on the motion to suppress over multiple days in March and April, and he considered hours of video and audio recordings of the police interactions with Williams. Witnesses at the hearings included law enforcement officers involved in the arrest and interrogation, an expert in opioid addiction and a state forensic psychologist.

Cpl. Eugene Cole

Mullen decided Williams was not exhibiting withdrawal symptoms severe enough to interfere with his ability to act voluntarily. He also found that although a police officer punched Williams while he was handcuffed, that violence was not coercion for a confession. So the judge allowed nearly 90 minutes of the interrogation with Maine State Police detectives to be admitted as evidence. That section would include Williams telling the detectives he shot Cole, according to court documents.

But the judge also noted that Williams was extremely tired during the interrogation, repeatedly asking to sleep and at one point saying he was too weak to stand. But the officers told him to reenact the shooting anyway. Mullen ruled that the reenactment and any other statements made after a certain point therefore could not be admitted as evidence.

The judge quoted Williams in his 14-page order: “I know there’s no happy ending.”

“Tragically, this statement is arguably the most accurate, and undoubtedly the saddest, statement made on the entire video of the defendant with the detectives,” Mullen wrote in the conclusion of his order.

A spokesman for the Maine Attorney General’s Office offered only a brief comment on the judge’s decision.

“We respect the ruling Justice Mullen made,” Marc Malon wrote in an email. “We do not have any further comment at this time.”

Defense lawyer Verne Paradie said he was pleased with the ruling, even if he hoped the judge would suppress the entire interrogation.

“We think that the other portion of the interview that wasn’t suppressed is also able to be used favorably for us, because it certainly displays the John Williams who was under the influence of drugs, who was obviously exhausted, in pain, hungry.”

Prosecutors allege that Williams shot Cole during a confrontation in Norridgewock on April 25, 2018. He fled and sparked a manhunt by more than 200 officers from multiple jurisdictions. He was captured on April 28.

Police officers gave contradicting testimony about their use of force during that arrest. The judge decided there was no evidence to show they beat and kicked Williams, but he agreed the defendant had been punched by an officer while handcuffed and taunted by members of the search party. He also addressed a controversial photograph that was later leaked on social media.

“The court rejects the rationale provided for the now infamous photograph of the defendant taken by a member of the search party, namely that a photograph was necessary to confirm that the defendant was indeed the suspect law enforcement had been searching for over three days,” the judge wrote.

“To the court’s recollection, every officer who asked during the hearing stated that they were sure the defendant, once arrested, was the man they had been searching for,” he added in a footnote.

But the judge said the search party’s actions did not amount to coercion. He noted that Williams did not act fearful or resist during his interrogation, and the officers who interviewed him gave him food, water and clothes.

“The punch that occurred was unrelated to whether defendant confessed or not, in fact, he was not asked any substantive questions while in the woods,” Mullen wrote. “The confession was obtained by entirely different law enforcement officers than were present in the woods with the defendant.”

Mullen also found that there was “virtually no evidence” that Williams’ drug use caused actual mental or physical impairment during his interrogation. While Williams later said his withdrawal included sweats, nausea and aches, the judge said he was not exhibiting those symptoms in the video of his interrogation.

However, Mullen also identified a point in that video when the conditions changed. He noted that Williams repeatedly said he was tired and wanted to sleep, at one point asking if he could curl up on the floor and take a nap. He dozed off multiple times and questioned whether he would be able to stand during the reenactment of the shooting.

“The detectives in response either changed the subject or indicated in essence that once they were through with the defendant he would be able to sleep,” Mullen wrote.

So he barred the prosecutors from using any statements after roughly 90 minutes into the interrogation. His order excludes the entire reenactment, as well as statements Williams made during a cigarette break and on the ride to the prison. That portion included a moment when Williams told the detectives they had treated him well.

“Case law has repeatedly emphasized the effect that ‘slowly mounting fatigue’ may be expected to have on a person’s judgment and will,” Mullen wrote.

Paradie said there have been no plea negotiations so far in the case. Jury selection is scheduled to begin June 3; the trial, June 10. The case was transferred to Cumberland County Court in Portland because of extensive publicity in Somerset County, but questioning more than 300 potential jurors could still take days, he said.

“It will be a challenge to get a jury, but we are all hopeful that they can be fair,” Paradie said.

While he declined to discuss his trial strategy in detail, he expected to present a defense related to Williams’ extensive drug use leading up to and on the night of the shooting.

“Definitely, his level of intoxication and drug use will be a significant part of our defense,” Paradie said.

Megan Gray can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:
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