The hate crimes trial of a man accused of attacking black men in Biddeford and Portland is set to begin in U.S. District Court in Portland on Tuesday.

Maurice Diggins, left, and Dusty Leo York County Jail photos

Maurice Diggins of Biddeford is one of two men accused of unprovoked violent attacks against black men outside a Portland bar and a Biddeford gas station in the early morning hours of April 15, 2018. Dusty Leo, Diggins’ nephew, pleaded guilty last week to his role in the assaults.

Diggins faces up to five years on a count of conspiracy to commit hate crimes and up to 10 years on each of two counts of committing hate crimes. Jury selection for the trial began Monday.

Criminal trials for alleged hate crimes are rare in Maine, although the number of hate crimes has grown nationally in recent years.

According to federal indictments, Diggins and Leo approached three black men outside a bar on Wharf Street in Portland’s Old Port shortly before 1 a.m. on April 15, 2018. Without being provoked, according to the indictment, Diggins and Leo began calling the men a racial epithet and hit one of the men, breaking his jaw. They then struck the other two and tried to follow the man whose jaw they broke when he ran from the scene.

About an hour later, Diggins and Leo pulled into a 7-Eleven parking lot in Biddeford. When they saw another black man, they said “who you eyeballing, (racial epithet),” according to court records. Prosecutors allege Diggins stopped the truck, approached the man and repeated the comment. Diggins then got between the door of the store and the victim while Leo walked up behind the man and hit him, according to court records.

That man’s jaw also was broken. None of the victims has been identified.

Court records show both victims had emergency trauma surgery to repair their jaws, and that the same surgeon performed the surgeries back to back.

Diggins, who was 34 when he was arrested, has been in custody since 2018.

Defense attorney David Beneman filed a pre-trial motion asking the court to exclude any reference during trial to Diggins’ tattoos, including tattoos of swastikas, “SS” lightning bolts, “Dirty White Boys” and a vodka bottle with the words “we must secure the existence of our people and future for white children.” Beneman argues in his filing that Diggins’ tattoos were not visible during the alleged assaults and there is no evidence Diggins was a member of any organization that holds racially biased views.

“The tattoos are not relevant because there is nothing to suggest the tattoos have any connection with the assaults or racially motivated the assaults,” Beneman wrote.

The government has retained Christopher Magyarics of the Anti-Defamation League to offer testimony on the tattoos, according to Beneman’s filing. Beneman argued in his trial motion that Magyarics’ testimony should be excluded because it will not help the jury understand the evidence of the attacks.

U.S. District Judge Jon Levy had not issued a ruling on Beneman’s motion as of early Monday afternoon.

Both Beneman and the U.S. Attorney’s Office said Monday they would not comment on the case.

Diggins’ trial is scheduled to begin at 9:15 a.m. Tuesday and is expected to last up to eight days.

Leo, who was 27 when he was arrested, appeared in federal court on Feb. 24 to enter a guilty plea under an agreement reached with federal prosecutors. Leo pleaded guilty to one count each of conspiracy to commit hate crimes and to aiding and abetting the commission of a hate crime. A second count of aiding and abetting the commission of a hate crime was dropped as part of the plea agreement.

Leo, also of Biddeford, faces a maximum term of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 on the conspiracy charge. He also faces up to 10 years in prison and a maximum $250,000 fine for the hate crime charge. He also faces up to three years of supervised release on each charge. A sentencing date has not been set.

After the 2018 assaults, the Maine Attorney General’s Office filed a civil rights complaint related to the Biddeford incident. When neither Diggins nor Leo showed up to answer the civil rights complaint, a default judgment ordered them to stay away from the victims of the attack, barred them from committing other hate crimes and warned them against contacting witnesses.

Hate crimes are on the rise nationally and reached a 16-year high in 2018, according to the FBI. There were 4,571 reported hate crimes against people in 2018, according to the bureau’s annual report.

However, FBI figures show crime falling in Maine over the last decade. In 2008, 63 hate crimes were reported in Maine, but that number fell to 11 in 2018, according to FBI statistics.

In Maine, most hate crimes are prosecuted as civil cases, and criminal charges at the state level are rare. Civil cases usually result in a civil injunction that bars those accused of hate crimes from contacting victims and harassing others. If that order is violated, the offender can be sentenced to up to 364 days in jail and fined.

The state has had only nine criminal prosecutions for state-level hate crimes.

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