[Courtesy of the Portland Press-Herald]
Concord — September 25, 2008 — Stephanie Anderson spent more time prosecuting Robert LaPointe than she has spent on any case in nearly 30 years as a lawyer. Now the district attorney must decide whether to take another shot at convicting LaPointe on manslaughter charges or settle for the lesser convictions handed down by a jury Wednesday at Cumberland County Superior Court.
“I’m disappointed. I thought there was strong evidence supporting a manslaughter conviction,” Anderson said.
Some jurors didn’t see it that way. After hearing from more than 20 witnesses over eight days of testimony, they convicted LaPointe on two counts of aggravated operating under the influence in a fatal Long Lake boat crash, but were deadlocked on two counts of manslaughter and one count of reckless conduct with a dangerous weapon.
LaPointe faces up to five years in prison on the convictions, with sentencing scheduled for Nov. 12. Manslaughter carries a maximum of 30 years in prison.
“We could try him again on manslaughter,” Anderson said, standing in her office with Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Norbert.
“Jen and I will talk after we get a little further from the trial” and after getting questionnaires back from the jurors, Anderson said.
The jury began deliberating Monday afternoon following closing arguments. One by one Wednesday afternoon, jurors told Justice Robert Crowley that they were deadlocked on manslaughter and reckless conduct, and they weren’t going to reach a unanimous decision no matter how long they deliberated.
Crowley declared a mistrial on those counts, and accepted the guilty verdicts on the others.
Minutes later, tears rolled down LaPointe’s face as he stood next to his wife and his defense lawyers. Boston lawyer J. Albert Johnson said LaPointe was too emotional to speak, but he offered condolences on his behalf to the families of the victims, Terry Raye Trott of Harrison and Suzanne Groetzinger of Berwick.
“This has been a very, very difficult case,” said Johnson, who has represented high-profile defendants including Pamela Smart and Patricia Hearst. “It has never, ever left his mind, nor will it for the rest of his life, that two people died that night.”
Johnson said the deadlocked jury showed that the state did not meet its burden to prove all the facts beyond a reasonable doubt. He also said that, if prosecutors again seek the manslaughter conviction, “We would be prepared to defend that with equal vigor.”
Meg Harvey, a close friend of Groetzinger and her family, said they were disappointed not to get the manslaughter conviction, but they were pleased that LaPointe was convicted on two felony counts. Harvey thanked the prosecutors and investigators and said the family will leave the decision on whether to try the case again up to them.
“We still have to deal with not having Suzie and Raye every day,” Harvey said. “She was everyone’s sunshine. When she came into your circle, you immediately felt better.”
Harvey also emphasized the family’s desire to push for new state legislation that would set limits for the size or horsepower of speedboats on Maine’s lakes and ponds.
“No other family needs to go through this and suffer that loss,” Harvey said.
Norbert also hopes the verdict sends a message.
“There is too much of a lackadaisical attitude about driving a boat and consuming alcohol. Here it was definitely deadly,” Norbert said.
The crash that prompted the emotional case occurred on the night of Aug. 11, 2007, in Harrison as two boats moved across Long Lake about an hour after sunset. LaPointe, who owns a home in Bridgton, was driving his 32-foot Sunsation Dominator, named No Patience. The two-year-old cigarette-style boat was worth about $150,000 and had twin 425-horsepower engines.
Trott was driving his 14-foot motorboat with a custom-mounted 115-horsepower outboard motor. He and Groetzinger, his girlfriend, had gone onto the lake that night to watch the Perseid meteor shower.
LaPointe and his 19-year-old passenger, family friend Nicole Randall, were headed north toward the home of Randall’s parents in Bridgton. LaPointe and Randall both testified that they saw a motorboat — apparently belonging to Trott — without lights around 9 p.m. LaPointe said the boat sped by them and then veered off toward shore.
A few minutes later, just after LaPointe had throttled up and the boat was skimming across the surface of the lake, his boat ran up and over the back of Trott’s boat. Groetzinger died instantly from a propeller strike, and Trott’s cause of death was a combination of propeller injury and drowning.
LaPointe and Randall were tossed from the Sunsation, and they swam to shore. Randall suffered a broken elbow while LaPointe had a large bruise on his left side. His boat continued unmanned, hit the shore at Bear Point and slid 166 feet up a wooded slope.
Prosecutors said LaPointe had been drinking Bud Light all day and was going at least 45 mph at the time of the collision. Anderson and Norbert based their case on several key pieces of evidence. First, there was the result of a blood test taken from LaPointe at Bridgton Hospital three hours after the crash, showing a blood alcohol content of 0.11 percent. A state chemist testified that the level was likely around 0.15 percent at the time of the collision. Maine’s legal limit to operate a boat or a car is 0.08 percent.
There were also statements made by LaPointe to investigators, some of which were recorded on tape by Maine Warden Jason Luce. In those statements, LaPointe said repeatedly that he was going about 45 or 50 mph before the crash but no faster.
And Bridgton Hospital nurse Marlene Fillebrown testified that LaPointe told her he had been drinking all day, stopped for an hour, then had six more beers. She also said LaPointe suggested that she swap a sample of her blood for his own.
More than a dozen Maine wardens worked on the case, from the divers who recovered the bodies and crash wreckage to those who pieced together the boats and conducted a reconstruction of the crash. Capt. Dan Scott said it was the most complex investigation ever conducted by the agency, and it cost about $100,000.
“We’re not going to tolerate people operating recklessly or under the influence,” Scott said Wednesday. “We hope this verdict will help to bring some closure to the family and friends of Terry Raye Trott and Suzanne Groetzinger.”
The defense’s main strategy at trial was to minimize LaPointe’s responsibilities and to point out the responsibilities that Trott allegedly failed to meet on the lake that night. Several witnesses for the defense said they saw Trott’s boat with no lights before the crash. Only one witness, a photographer who was at his home on the east shore of the lake, testified that he saw two navigation lights on Trott’s boat. Chilcott, the boat crash expert called by the state, said the “all-around” light on the back of the boat was not working, based on his review of the filament.
Throughout the trial, the defense also expressed doubt about the reliability of the blood sample taken from LaPointe, which sat in the back seat of a warden’s truck for 34 hours before it was dropped off at the state laboratory. State witnesses said that blood samples often take much longer than that to be delivered, and that there is no scientific evidence to suggest such delays produce inaccurate results, under any conditions of storage or temperature. Because the crash happened on a Saturday night, the lab was not open to receive samples until the following Monday morning.
LaPointe himself took the stand on Friday, the last day of testimony. He said he drank a total of three Bud Lights before the crash. LaPointe said he told an investigator that he had a six-pack because he counted beers that he opened but didn’t consume. He said he never suggested that a nurse submit her own blood in place of his.
LaPointe also said his speed at the time of impact was around 30 mph and was a “fair speed” for that hour on the lake. He said Luce intimidated him and pressured him into giving a higher speed estimate during an interview that LaPointe didn’t know was being recorded.
After the verdicts were delivered and Crowley dismissed the jury, a frustrated Anderson lashed out at LaPointe as she requested that Crowley impose a new bail order.
“He gave false testimony under oath. He maligned and slandered other witnesses in this case,” said Anderson, who also accused LaPointe of intimidating Fillebrown at the courthouse.
Anderson said LaPointe has been living in a fantasy world and still has not accepted any responsibility for the crash. She also said that LaPointe has 22 speeding convictions on roadways — something that was not introduced at trial.
Johnson, LaPointe’s lead lawyer, said his client is prepared to appear for sentencing on Nov. 12.
“I choose not to comment on the appropriateness of the district attorney’s comments. I will comment on the risk of flight, which is negative,” Johnson told Crowley.
Crowley allowed LaPointe to remain free on bail, under conditions that include no consumption of alcohol and no operation of a watercraft.