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Judge orders new trial for convicted man, citing prosecution missteps


In a rare decision, a Lincoln County judge has ordered a new trial in the case of a man whom he found guilty last fall of a felony sexual assault charge.

Superior Court Justice Daniel Billings originally found Joseph Richards, 46, guilty of Class A gross sexual assault, a felony, and Class D assault, a misdemeanor, during a bench trial in October 2021. On Tuesday, Billings vacated the conviction and ordered a new trial for later this year.

“As the court noted during trial, ‘this case is a mess,’ ” Billings wrote in his order. “The only way to clean up the mess and allow justice to be done is to grant a new trial.”

In what both the prosecution and defense have called a “rare” order from a Maine justice, Billings wrote that the district attorney’s office failed to turn over exculpatory evidence to Richards’ attorney, meaning evidence that supported his innocence. According to the order, prosecutors were preparing to use that exculpatory evidence – a police report in which Richards’ children made statements supporting his innocence – to cross examine one of Richards’ witnesses during trial.

Billings noted that prosecutors are required by both the Maine and U.S. constitutions to disclose such evidence to the defense. As a result of this, Richards’ defense attorney, Jeremy Pratt, said his client was misled into forgoing a jury trial for a bench trial, in which the judge is responsible for issuing a decision.

Billings also said the district attorney’s office introduced new “discovery,” or information that attorneys obtain while preparing witnesses for trial, too late for Pratt to prepare an adequate defense.

“As the judge said, the case was a mess,” Pratt said. “I wasn’t provided all of this material that I was required to be provided until the eve of trial and during trial, and that messed up the strategic choices I made, and who I’d call as witnesses.”

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Pratt said his client declined an offer for a mistrial that Billings made during the bench trial, because it would’ve “rewarded” prosecutors for introducing new evidence too close to the trial date by giving them more time to build a stronger case against his client.

Richards was arrested in late March 2020 and indicted on seven counts related to aggravated assault, gross sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child in September. The state argues that Richards spent several years sexually abusing a minor, whom he impregnated and then assaulted, causing a miscarriage.

Four of the charges listed in Richards’ indictment were dismissed in preparation for the trial. While Richards was originally found guilty of felony and misdemeanor assault, the judge did not find him guilty of the most serious charge, elevated aggravated assault on a pregnant person.

District Attorney Natasha Irving for Lincoln County said her office did not withhold the police report or any other pieces of evidence intentionally.

“This was not my attorneys committing some type of violation of the rules,” Irving said. “I know that whatever did happen, we have safeguards in place now to make sure that the attorney of record will always be given the discovery.”

The police report was the result of Richards’ arrest later in Piscataquis County. He was charged with violating the conditions of his release from jail, which prohibited him from being with anyone younger than 18 while he was awaiting trial in Lincoln County.

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Richards was assigned a different defense attorney for the new criminal charge in Piscataquis County. Assistant District Attorney Kent Murdick, one of the two attorneys who prosecuted Richards’ case, said his office didn’t realize they didn’t send Pratt the police report until it was time for the trial. Murdick said he also thought that the Piscataquis County defense attorney would’ve shared the police report with Pratt.

“We, the state, are sometimes portrayed as being this kind of monstrous or overbearing element to the criminal justice system, but we’re not,” Murdick said in an interview Wednesday. “We’re interested in seeing the defendant get due process, as much as the court is and as much as the defendant is.”

Murdick said he didn’t think the children’s statements would’ve changed the judge’s verdict.

“I don’t think it would’ve impacted the decision at all,” Murdick said. “However, sometimes the mere appearance of the defendant not getting due process is enough to undermine the credibility of the justice system, and that’s what we’re all trying to protect, even the state.”

Although the arrest took place in a different county and prosecutorial district, Pratt said it was the police chief for Damariscotta, a town in Lincoln County, who arrested Richards and wrote the police report in question.

“What makes it even worse, is they had the information and the report ready to go, to cross-examine a witness,” Pratt said of the district attorney’s office. “They had it and they knew it was important to the trial, but they never bothered to give it to me.”

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Murdick and Irving said their district now has safeguards in place to assure information is shared with defense attorneys.

“It comes in, it’s reviewed,” Murdick said of discovery evidence. “Every single police department and officer that was involved is contacted to make sure we have all the reports.”

Murdick said it’s also the district’s policy to timestamp all pieces of evidence that prosecutors send to defense attorneys as part of the discovery process. The stamps include the time and date that the evidence was shared.

Richards is free on $10,000 bail, although Pratt said Wednesday he is asking the court to reduce Richards’ bail while he waits for a new trial. According to Billings’ order, the court plans to meet in late May to schedule a trial date for sometime in the summer.


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