Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin delivers arguments before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday. The court also heard from Tom Hallett, an attorney for Mark Cardilli, who was convicted of manslaughter five years ago but had his conviction overturned. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

State prosecutors say the manslaughter conviction of a Portland man who shot and killed his sister’s boyfriend in 2019 should have never been vacated.

Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin urged the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday to overturn the decision that, if upheld, would grant Mark Cardilli Jr. a new trial.

“We don’t see any facts that would have supported a different outcome,” Robbin told justices in Portland, referring to the original verdict rendered in 2019 by Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills.

Cardilli’s appeals attorney, Thomas Hallett, maintained that the conviction was indeed wrong because his client’s original lawyers did not provide effective counsel – specifically that they did not argue strongly enough that Cardilli was justified in using deadly force against Isahak Muse because he believed his life was at risk.

“The judge viewed it through a wrong lens … because the lawyers did not do their jobs,” Hallett said of attorneys Matt Nichols and Sarah Churchill, who represented Cardilli at trial.

Tom Hallett, an appeals attorney for Mark Cardilli, has argued that his client’s trial attorneys failed to present a proper self-defense argument during his 2019 trial for shooting his sister’s boyfriend, Isahak Muse. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Five of the seven supreme court justices heard arguments from both sides Tuesday but will issue their decision at a later date, extending a legal case that already has entered its fifth year.


Cardilli did not attend the hearing. Several people were in the audience, including members of the victim’s family, but they declined to speak to a reporter afterward.

After the conviction was vacated last year, Muse’s sister Asli Muse said the decision was devastating.

We “cannot understand how we could lose my little brother, but Cardilli will get to walk around free,” she said in a statement at the time. “He took my brother’s life and was convicted of this. It is not fair that he barely served any time and can just walk away from it all. We can’t get my brother back.”

Mark Cardilli Jr. sits with his attorney Tom Hallett during his bail hearing in August. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Cardilli was found guilty of manslaughter following a bench trial in late 2019. He initially had been charged with murder, but Mills opted to convict him of the lesser crime. She later sentenced him to 11 years in prison, with 3.5 years suspended. He served a portion of that sentence at Windham Correctional Facility before last year’s decision to vacate the conviction.

During the trial, Cardilli admitted to killing Muse during a fight at Cardilli’s parents’ home in Portland’s Riverton neighborhood, but he said he was defending himself and his family. Muse was visiting his girlfriend, Chelsea Cardilli, that night, and the conflict started as a disagreement over whether he could spend the night. Other members of the Cardilli family were involved in a verbal and physical fight before the shooting.

At one point during the fight, Cardilli, who had recently been discharged from the Army, ran to his room and retrieved his handgun from a safe.


Justice Andrew Horton on Tuesday pointed to the fact that Cardilli was the only one who “introduced deadly force” into the situation when he got his gun.

Cardilli first told police he fired into Muse’s chest, but forensic experts for both sides agreed that the shots hit Muse at contact range in the back. The defense attorney theorized in his closing argument that Muse twisted when the first shot grazed his eyebrow, so the second and third shots hit him from behind. Prosecutors, however, suggested Muse was trying to turn and run, and a possible bullet defect in the floor suggested Muse was falling or on the ground when Cardilli shot him.

The Cardillis are white, and Muse was Black and Muslim. Since the first days after the fatal shooting, the role of racism was a constant question. Chelsea Cardilli testified during trial that her brother had made racist statements about Somali people, Muslim people and people of color, although Mills later wrote that she didn’t view that testimony as credible.

Cardilli had already appealed the conviction to the state’s highest court, arguing that he was justified in using deadly force against Muse, but the justices disagreed.

“Even if Cardilli had an actual belief that Muse was about to use deadly force by taking control of the gun that Cardilli brought into the chaos – a belief not asserted by Cardilli at trial – the court found that any such belief was objectively unreasonable,” Justice Ellen Gorman wrote in the court’s opinion.

Cardilli, through his attorney, then requested a post-conviction review, which was conducted by Superior Court Justice John O’Neil. That review focused more on whether Cardilli was offered effective counsel. O’Neil concluded that the trial lawyers failed to “vigorously argue” that he acted in self-defense and vacated the conviction, setting the stage for a new trial. The state then challenged that decision, bringing the matter once again to the supreme court.


During Tuesday’s arguments, several justices questioned both Robbin from the AG’s office and Hallett, Cardilli’s latest attorney.

The main point of Hallett’s argument was that Cardilli’s two trial attorneys made different arguments at different times in their defense. During closing arguments, attorney Nichols failed to articulate Cardilli’s claim of self-defense, Hallett said.

Robbin disagreed.

“I am confident that Justice Mills listened to the entire case regardless of legal arguments made by counsel,” she said.

At one point, Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill seemed to agree with the prosecution – that even if defense counsel failed to articulate their case, the facts had not changed, and the high court had already ruled on the self-defense argument during the initial appeal.

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