More than 250 potential jurors will line up in the Cumberland County Courthouse on Monday for the upcoming trial of the man accused of killing a Somerset County sheriff’s deputy last year.

The intense media coverage of the shooting and the manhunt that followed poses a clear challenge for attorneys who hope to find a dozen objective jurors. The case was moved to Cumberland County because of the volume of news coverage about John D. Williams in central Maine. Still, if the initial pool does not yield a jury, a second group of 250 people could be called later in the week.

Cpl. Eugene Cole

Williams, 30, of Madison has pleaded not guilty to murder in the death of Cpl. Eugene Cole in Norridgewock in April 2018. Cole, 61, was the first Maine police officer fatally shot in the line of duty in three decades. Police launched a massive search and arrested Williams outside a secluded cabin in Fairfield nearly four days later.

“One of the things about Maine being a small place is that a story like this gets a tremendous amount of attention,” said Thea Johnson, an associate professor at the University of Maine School of Law. “Rightly so, but it means that it’s on everybody’s radar. I think it’s going to be quite difficult to find people who are not familiar with the case. … When you do get jurors who are familiar with the case, you want them to not have formed strong opinions or have strong feelings about it.”

Jury selection begins Monday and could last through Friday.

When the trial begins the following week, defense attorney Verne Paradie said he will ask those jurors to consider a lesser charge of manslaughter as an alternative. A murder conviction comes with a sentence of 25 years to life in prison, while manslaughter is punishable by up to 30 years.

“The state has charged Mr. Williams with intentionally and knowingly causing Cpl. Cole’s death,” Paradie said. “Our defense has always been and will be that Mr. Williams’ drug use and significant intoxication on the night of the incident affected his ability to form the intent necessary under Maine law to be guilty of murder.”

A spokesman said in an email that the Maine Attorney General’s Office could not comment on the case.

Police and prosecutors have still not provided many details on the fatal confrontation, including a motive for the shooting on a dark Norridgewock road sometime after 1 a.m. on April 25, 2018.

An affidavit says that friends dropped Williams at a home in town that day around 1 a.m. He was carrying multiple bags and a bulletproof vest, and one woman in the car described him to police as “tweaked.” The group saw a Somerset County Sheriff’s Department vehicle near the home. Soon after the friends left, Williams called one of them and said he had shot a sheriff’s deputy in the head.

Police allege Williams then stole Cole’s pickup truck cruiser, drove to a nearby Cumberland Farms and stole cigarettes. He drove off but soon abandoned the truck. More than 200 law enforcement officers from multiple jurisdictions joined the search for him in the days that followed, and he was arrested shortly after noon April 28.

John D. Williams is led by Maine State Police detectives into a cruiser after he was apprehended April 28, 2018, in Fairfield. Morning Sentinel file photo by David Leaming

Williams confessed to shooting Cole while he was interrogated by police. Defense attorneys later asked a judge to throw out all statements Williams made to law enforcement on the day of his arrest, arguing he was beaten by police and experiencing severe withdrawal from opiates at the time.

Superior Court Justice Robert Mullen issued his ruling in April, one day after the one-year anniversary of the killing. He decided that police did not coerce the confession and could use it at trial, but barred the prosecutors from showing the jury a videotaped reenactment of the shooting.

Mullen, who typically sits in central Maine, will also preside over the trial. He worked in private practice before he became a judge in Maine District Court in 1996. He moved to the Superior Court in 2014 and is now the deputy chief justice. He recently oversaw another high-profile case, in which he sentenced Luc Tieman of Fairfield to 55 years in prison for murdering his wife in 2016.

In his recent order in this case, the judge quoted Williams himself: “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.

Johnson, who teaches criminal law, said this case is particularly charged because Cole worked in law enforcement.

“Murder trials are always hard to find jurors, but it’s particularly hard when the case itself has already gotten a huge amount of press, and then of course you have the issue here where the victim has particular standing in the community as a police officer,” she said.

The process of interviewing potential jurors is called “voir dire.” Attorney Tina Heather Nadeau, executive director of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the state is the only one that does not allow attorneys to lead that questioning in some way. Instead, Maine judges have that discretion. They typically rely heavily on written questionnaires and can decide how much individual questioning will follow, Nadeau said.

In this case, jury selection will begin Monday with those questionnaires. Paradie said the potential jurors will answer dozens of questions about their knowledge of the case, their connections to law enforcement and their feelings on drug use and guns. He expected the answers to eliminate 50 to 75 percent of the jury pool. Then the judge will speak individually with the remaining jurors in a room with the attorneys present for further questions.

“It will be difficult to find people who haven’t heard anything about the case, but if they’ve heard something about it, we want to find out if what they’ve heard or what they’ve seen has caused them to already form an opinion on Mr. Williams’ guilt or innocence,” Paradie said.

The attorneys can challenge a person’s ability to serve as a fair and impartial juror. The 12 jurors and any alternates are chosen at random from the remaining group. Each side also gets a certain number of peremptory challenges that can be used to remove jurors from the pool without a stated reason, but they cannot strike a person based on race, ethnicity or gender.

While jury selection usually includes questions about a person’s connections to law enforcement, Nadeau said she would expect it to be particularly important in this case.

“We all like to think of ourselves as unbiased and fair, but I think if you have a brother who is law enforcement and you could just picture your brother being in the deputy’s shoes, that could really impact your decision-making ability,” she said. “Whether it is overt or not, that’s just human nature. A really searching voir dire is going to be really important.”

The trial is scheduled to begin June 10.

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