AUBURN – An Androscoggin County Superior Court judge must decide whether confidential statements that a woman made to her attorney before she was killed nearly 14 months ago should be allowed as evidence in her ex-boyfriend’s murder trial.
Daniel Roberts admitted that he shot Melissa Mendoza, 29, in the back of the head at his home in Sabattus on Aug. 15, 2005, but claimed that he acted to stop her from harming their 2-year-old daughter, Savanna.
Communications between attorneys and clients are regarded as private, and courts consistently have found that the privilege survives the client’s death. But judges, in some cases, have lifted the secrecy.
Roberts and Mendoza were involved in a bitter child custody dispute at the time of the killing, according to Deputy Attorney General William Stokes, who said it would be unfair if the jury in Roberts’ trial is allowed to hear his version of events but not hers.
“He gets to tell his side of the story, and she can’t tell hers because he killed her,” Stokes argued Friday.
Roberts’ attorney, Leonard Sharon, cautioned that allowing Mendoza’s attorneys to testify could discourage people from speaking honestly with their attorneys, knowing that what they reveal later could be used in court.
“The sanctity of the lawyers’ room … should not be balanced against what the state would like to use later,” Sharon said.
Mendoza and Roberts had an unusual custody arrangement, with each parent having custody for half the year. When Roberts had the girl, Mendoza usually lived with him in Sabattus; when she had custody, she often took the baby with her to her family home in California.
Mendoza had applied for protection-from-abuse orders against Roberts on three occasions and twice was treated for injuries she blamed on him. No permanent order was ever granted because Mendoza either withdrew her application or failed to show up for the hearing.
In the spring of 2005, Mendoza took Savanna to California during a period when Roberts had custody. After he accused her of kidnapping the child, California authorities took Savanna from her and returned her to her father.
The shooting occurred when Mendoza returned to Roberts’ house after a court-ordered supervised visit with Savanna on Aug. 13 and 14.
Mendoza had again filed on Aug. 8 for a protection order, and Stokes said her confidential conversations with her attorney in the days before her death could shed light on the events that unfolded.
“The jury is not going to understand any of this case unless they understand the context from which it arises,” he said.
Justice Joyce Wheeler said she would rule soon on the motion, along with others related to the case. Roberts is scheduled to go on trial Feb. 5. The defense is seeking a change of venue because of the extensive publicity the case has received in the Lewiston and Portland areas.