A Portland man who was sentenced in 2019 to 7½ years in prison for fatally shooting his sister’s boyfriend returned to Cumberland County Superior Court on Thursday to challenge his manslaughter conviction.

Mark Cardilli Jr.’s legal team argued that Cardilli’s original attorneys failed him in several ways leading up to the guilty verdict he received in December 2019, nine months after he killed 22-year-old Isahak Muse during a late-night altercation in the Cardilli home.

Mark Cardilli AP

During a long and often testy examination, Cardilli’s current counsel, Thomas Hallett, questioned original defense attorney Matt Nichols about the choices he made before and during the original five-day trial, which drew significant media attention.

In particular, Hallett pushed Nichols to admit that the defense had not made a particular statute dealing with justified self-defense a central part of its case.

Muse, the boyfriend of Chelsea Cardilli, was a frequent guest in the family’s home, according testimony from the original trial. Though the Cardilli family originally objected to Muse coming over on the evening of March 15, they eventually agreed to allow him to stay with Chelsea until 1 a.m.

When Muse refused to leave at that time, Mark Cardilli Jr. and his father attempted to force him from the home, and a shoving match soon broke out among the three of them and Chelsea Cardilli. Eventually Cardilli, an Army veteran, ran upstairs to his room and removed a handgun from a safe. He returned, aimed the gun at Muse and told him to leave.


Cardilli testified that Muse instead ran at him and began throwing punches. After backing down the hallway into a corner – one hand protecting his face from blows and another by his side with the gun – Cardilli raised the gun and shot Muse, he said.

A photo of Isahak Muse at a vigil held following his death. Photo by Awo Muse

Forensic experts for both sides agreed that the shots hit Muse at contact range in the back, though they disagreed about whether Muse was turning to run or merely twisting away from a bullet.

On Thursday, Hallett suggested the defense did not do enough to argue that Cardilli reasonably feared Muse was about to use deadly force against him, which would have given Cardilli legal grounds to shoot Muse. Hallett asked why Nichols had not specifically asked Cardilli at trial whether he feared Muse’s punches could kill him.

Nichols was adamant that the defense had adequately argued that Cardilli feared for his life. He said he focused on Cardilli’s fear that Muse would disarm and shoot him because his client had said repeatedly that he was not afraid the punches would kill him.

“I was not going to coach Marky into lying,” he said. “There’s no way that kid was going to lie on the witness stand.”

Yet Nichols’ testimony differed from what was said by his former co-counsel Sarah Churchill, now a district court judge, and by Mark Cardilli.


Churchill said the defense did not focus on whether Cardilli felt his life was in imminent danger because it had stronger defenses available based on the argument that Muse had “surreptitiously remained,” within the home.

“It never seemed to me that there was the imminent use of deadly force,” she said.

A second line of questioning revolved around Nichols’ advice that Cardilli waive his right to a jury trial and place his fate in the hands of Justice Nancy Mills.

Cardilli, who smiled and waved to family members after he was brought into the courtroom from the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, testified that Nichols had led him to believe that Mills’ assignment to the case would assure a not-guilty verdict. He said he only agreed to waive his right to a jury trial because of what Nichols told him about Mills, including that the Nichols’ family had long referred to her as “Grandma Mills,” after Nichols’ young daughter had met her in the courthouse years prior.

“If it was another judge, then we’d want a jury,” Cardilli said. “There was never any worries that there would be a scenario besides acquittal.”

Nichols appeared outraged when Hallett questioned Mills’ relationship with Nichols’ family. Minutes after the outburst led Justice John O’Neil to call counsel into his chambers to discuss the line of questioning, Nichols resumed his testimony and denied that he or his daughter had a personal relationship with Mills or that he had ever promised Cardilli that they would win the case.


He defended his decision to advise Cardilli to choose Mills over a jury, which he said would have been less likely to understand the legal nuances of the case and to ignore its political nature. Racial tensions surrounded the 2019 investigation and trial. After Mills agreed to set cash bail for the defendant in May, more than 250 people protested the decision in support of Muse, who was Black and Muslim.

Nichols called Portland a “woke” and “leftist” city and said it would have been difficult to find 12 jurors who would have done right by his client.

“There’s an awful lot of white people in this town, this area, who are overwhelmed with white guilt,” he said. “Those would be the people I’d have feared most.”

Prosecutor Leanne Robbin, who opposed Nichols in the original case more than three years ago, praised his defense of Cardilli, noting he and Churchill had succeeded in winning him an acquittal on the more serious charge of murder. She said Cardilli was in jail because of his own mistake, not one made by his attorneys.

“The fatal flaw in Mark Cardilli’s thinking,” she said, “is that he was authorized to shoot a guest that overstayed his welcome.”

The hearing is set to resume Friday with the cross-examination of Cardilli.

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.