It was clear from opening statements by attorneys Thursday in the Lucien Frechette murder case that the credibility of the state’s key witness, Sheri-Lee Brown, 17, of South Paris, is considered to be the most important evidence that will be presented.
The third day of the trials of three teen-agers charged with shooting and robbing the elderly farmer in Norway in 1988 opened in Penobscot County Superior Court here with jurors hearing the first details of the crime. Jay Snow and Christopher Fitch, both 17, are being tried together in one courtroom with separate juries. Nathan Wade Conley, 17, is having his case presented in a separate room with a third jury.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas Goodwin, who is prosecuting Fitch and Snow, told their respective juries Thursday morning that Brown drove the three boys to the Frechette house with the intention of robbing him of money to buy drugs and that they had a gun.
“The case is going to feature accomplice testimony,” said Goodwin, referring to Brown. She also has been charged with murder and robbery in connection with the man’s slaying. For her testimony against the three boys, she has been offered a chance by the state to plead guilty to a lesser charge as a juvenile and be incarcerated until her 21st birthday.
“That type of testimony of a participant in a serious crime … must be looked at with great care,” said Goodwin.
Goodwin explained to jurors that Frechette was a healthy 83-year-old hay farmer who lived by himself on Crockett Ridge Road at the time of his murder. The prosecutor said on the afternoon of April 5, 1988, Brown drove Snow, Fitch Conley and another teen to a Norway apartment where “plans were made among some of these individuals to commit a robbery. They had an idea where they were going to get the money and they had a gun.”
Brown later took Snow, Fitch, Conley and another juvenile to the Crockett Ridge Road, parked a ways from the Frechette house and waited while the three boys went to the farm, the prosecutor said. Two neighbors and Brown heard gunshots and soon after the boys returned to the car, Goodwin added.
Frechette’s body was found outside his home the next day with three gunshot wounds to the back of the head and upper neck.
Following Goodwin’s presentation, the jury for Snow was excused from the courtroom to exclude them from hearing the opening statement by Fitch’s attorney, Alan Stone.
“These two weeks are the most important two weeks in Christopher Fitch’s life,” said Stone. “The evidence in this case against Christopher Fitch is largely of Sheri Brown. Her testimony is bought testimony. She entered into the deal of her life,” he continued, which hinges on “freedom vs. detention.”
Stone told the jury the case involves “children” who were 15 years old in 1988 and who come from “dysfunctional environments. Chris is such a person. Although the law is trying Christopher Fitch as an adult, he is a child.”
Stone asked the jury to “put the government to a test on every aspect” and ask themselves if “the pieces of the puzzle fit and is it complete.”
The Fitch jury was then moved to another room, while Snow’s was brought back to hear opening statements from attorney Tom Hallett.
“Ladies and gentleman, Jay Snow is innocent,” he stated. All that is known about this case, he said, is that Frechette died of three gunshot wounds, Sheri-Lee Brown, Snow, Fitch, Conley and two other friends drove to Lewiston after school on April 5, 1988, smoked marijuana and returned to Norway.
“There is no evidence in this case to suggest anything that happened after that,” said Hallett. The presumption of innocense “cloaks” Snow, he added.
The defense counselor also hammered away at the expected testimony of Brown.
“She struck a deal that allowed her to go on with her life. She not only made the deal of her life she got her life,” Hallett said.
He told the jurors to look at Brown when she testifies, see how she acts, ask themselves whether she always has told the truth and whether they can convict Snow on her testimony.
After both juries were assembled in the courtroom again, Dr. Richard Bean of Norway was called as the state’s first witness. He was the medical examiner called to the Frechette house after the body was discovered and ordered it to be taken to Augusta for examination. He said he assumed the death was a homicide judging from an apparent bullet wound at the base of the skull in the back of the head.
Laska Swan of Greenwood, Frechette’s granddaughter, also testified Thursday about finding his body the morning of April 6, 1988, when she arrived to do daily household chores at the farm. She said she searched the house and barn before finding her grandfather lying face up on the ground near a shed.
Swan said a pocket was turned partially inside out and some change was spilled on the ground. She said she also noticed tire tracks near the body and went immediately into the house to call for help.
Also testifying were Capt. James Miclon of the Oxford County Sheriff’s Department, Detective Cliff Howard of the Maine State Police and former state police criminal investigator Hugh Carter Jr. All testified about events surrounding the initial investigation of the scene and handling of evidence.