A jury found a Biddeford man guilty Tuesday of three federal hate crimes related to a pair of racially motivated attacks on black men.

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

Maurice Diggins, 38, was convicted on two counts of committing hate crimes and one count of conspiracy in connection with what prosecutors said were unprovoked assaults on black men in Portland and Biddeford in 2018. His nephew, Dusty Leo, faced similar charges stemming from the same assaults and pleaded guilty late last month to a count of conspiracy and one count of committing a hate crime. Leo has not yet been sentenced, but in a plea deal agreed not to appeal a sentence of less than four years, indicating prosecutors will not seek more time than that.

Diggins will be sentenced at a later date. He faces up to five years on the conspiracy charge and up to 10 years for each of the hate crimes. Penalties also include fines up to $250,000 on each count and supervised release of up to three years.

Diggins and Leo also face state assault charges, but the federal trial focused on whether the attacks were racially motivated.

It was the first prosecution for a hate crime in Maine at the federal level since the government adopted a new hate crime law in 2009.

Closing arguments ended Tuesday morning and the case was handed to the jury shortly after 10 a.m. The eight women and four men returned to the courtroom with their verdict shortly before 2 p.m. All members of the jury were white.

Diggins did not appear to react to the verdict. As he was led out of the courtroom by federal marshals, he blew a kiss to a small group of family members and supporters who were in the courtroom. His wife left the courtroom without commenting.

Sheila W. Sawyer, the lead federal prosecutor, said during closing arguments that the victims were targeted because of the color of their skin. Prosecutors had presented evidence that Diggins and Leo shouted racial slurs during the assaults, which took place on the same night. And an expert witness had testified that many of Diggins’ tattoos, including swastikas and other racist symbols and slogans, indicated he is a white supremacist.

Both victims were approached by the two white men before one of the attackers came up from behind and punched them in the face hard enough to break their jaws, prosecutors said. Both victims needed emergency surgery to repair the damage, performed by the same surgeon in back-to-back operations at Maine Medical Center about 12 hours after the attacks.

“In an instant, their jaws and their sense of security were shattered,” Sawyer said of the attacks.

One of the victims told jurors he moved from Biddeford after the attack because he no longer felt safe in the community.

Prosecutor Timothy Visser told jurors that Leo and Diggins had “a choreographed dance” in which one of the men would distract the victim and the other came up and sucker-punched him from behind.

“Two people do not just do things like this out of nowhere,” Visser said in support of the conspiracy charge.

Defense attorney David Beneman had presented evidence that Diggins and Leo also assaulted additional victims who were not black, an effort to undermine the argument that they were motivated by racial hatred. In his closing arguments, Beneman also said that Leo, not Diggins, was the primary aggressor in a series of assaults.

Leo and Diggins went out with a family group to celebrate a birthday on April 14, 2018, but “Dusty Leo got in fights all night long,” Beneman told jurors. “Dusty Leo was intoxicated and wild and asking for violence.”

As for the racist tattoos on Diggins’ arms, Beneman told jurors they were acquired more than a decade ago.

“Do not judge a book by its cover,” Beneman urged jurors.

Beneman declined to comment after the verdict. Sawyer said only that justice was done and Visser said it was important to prosecute those who commit crimes that target victims “for who they are.”

The U.S. Department of Justice released a statement after the verdict to call attention to the hate crime conviction.

“Diggins’ and Leo’s behavior was despicable,” U.S. Attorney Halsey B. Frank of the District of Maine said in a written statement. “It violated America’s and Maine’s core values that all men are created equal, that they are entitled to pursue their lives without racial discrimination, and entitled to be safe from being assaulted because of the color of their skin.”

Hate crimes prosecutions are rare in Maine, although the numbers of hate crimes have risen nationwide in recent years. This is the first such trial in Maine since passage of the 2009 Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was adopted after a gay man was tortured and killed in Wyoming.

Testimony took an unusual turn Monday when racist remarks made by former Gov. Paul LePage were entered into the record.

Diggins was heard in a tape-recorded conversation telling his wife, Tessa Dennison, that he believed he would be acquitted. Diggins, who was in jail at the time of the call, suggested that many Mainers share the racial views of LePage and that would protect him from being found guilty of a hate crime.

“Listen to Gov. LePage,” Diggins said, referring to comments the governor made in early 2016 about drug dealers from Connecticut and New York coming to Maine sell drugs and impregnate “white girls.”

“They’re coming up here, getting our women pregnant and selling our kids drugs,” is how Diggins put it to his wife. “Gov. LePage said that … he’s the racist, not me.”

Dennison had told prosecutors she didn’t remember the conversation, which led to the tape being played in court for the jury.

LePage issued a statement saying it  was “shameful anyone would try to use my name in relation to these incidents.” As a victim of domestic violence as a child, LePage said, “I find this vile justification of these hate crimes repugnant.”

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