CRIME, MONEY, POLITICS

Due process: A Prosecutor’s Power

Due Process
CENTERPIECE

Maine’s eight elected district attorneys wield tremendous power to decide how or whether to charge someone with a crime, whether to strike a plea deal and whether there’s enough evidence to win the case at trial.

That power became painfully clear to Alison McKellar of Camden over the last two years after the death of her 32-year-old sister in a boating accident on Damariscotta Lake. Kristen McKellar and a friend were swimming late in the evening on Aug. 2, 2018, when she was struck and killed by a boat operated by Jonathan Roberts, 46, of Waban, Mass.

Republican District Attorney Jonathan Liberman assured McKellar and her parents that he felt strongly that there was ample evidence to take the case to trial, McKellar said. He pursued, and received, a manslaughter indictment from a grand jury.

But Liberman then lost the November 2018 election to Democrat Natasha Irving, who now serves Waldo, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties. After she and her staff reviewed the evidence, they determined the case was not strong enough to take to trial.

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What started as a manslaughter charge with the potential for up to 30 years in prison ended with Roberts pleading guilty to one boating charge, being required to do 100 hours of community service and paying a $400 fine, court documents show. He did not serve any time in jail.

The whiplash of going from one opinion of the case to another has left Alison McKellar feeling she and her family never got their day in court.

“I felt like no matter what the outcome, I wanted to hear the state present the strongest possible argument for swimmers’ rights over boaters’ rights,” McKellar said recently during a conversation at her kitchen table. “I thought there was value in that even if we didn’t get a guilty verdict.”

Over the last 30 years, the power of Maine’s district attorneys has grown, fueled by their ability to make plea deals and because mandatory minimum sentences have taken discretion away from judges. District attorneys’ philosophies of how to mete out punishment can vary widely, meaning outcomes for defendants and families can be very different in different parts of Maine.

Sea Change by Marina Schauffler

Displays of love and grief

As the winter solstice approaches, crystalline stars wink from the dark dome of December nights. The celestial vistas are uplifting, but the news for our own planet is – in the words of a recent U.N. report – bleak. 

The carbon dioxide pollution inflaming the Earth is higher than it has ever been, and a new study warns that further atmospheric warming of even 1°C could push us past critical tipping points. We face, in the assessment of more than 11,000 scientists, a “climate emergency.”

I read news of plummeting bird populations, interspersed with reports of the latest wildfires, floods and droughts. I track the wild seesawing of local temperatures, a telltale sign of increasing weather mayhem.

I watch the black-capped chickadees, feeding in our apple tree, and wonder how they will navigate these new extremes – and how the plants and insects that support them will fare.

In this season of darkness, I repeat like an incantation the words of Wendell Berry: “It is the time’s discipline to think of the death of all living, and yet live.”

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