SKOWHEGAN – Rather than present all of their evidence once in a single trial, state prosecutors will have to conduct two separate trials of Shannon Atwood, accused of killing two women in Canaan this year.
Justice Nancy Mills this week granted Atwood’s defense team a motion to sever the trials, over the objections of Assistant Attorney General Andrew Benson.
Atwood will stand trial in February for the murder of his estranged wife, Shirley Moon-Atwood, 35, who last was seen in March and whose body has not been found.
He then will stand trial a second time, sometime next summer, for the murder of Cheryl Murdoch, 37, who was living with Atwood on Route 23 in Canaan in July and August.
Murdoch’s body was found on Aug. 11 in remote woods near the home they shared.
Atwood’s defense team, John Alsop and Arnold Clark, has maintained an alternate-suspect theory, in essence introducing the theory that Moon-Atwood, who was known for jealous rages, actually killed Murdoch and is in hiding.
Two recent hearings have been held, one in late September to argue about the possibility of bail, the other last week during which the motion to sever the cases was presented.
In granting Atwood bail on the murders last week, Mills noted that much of the evidence presented in the case is circumstantial.
Mills was not swayed by the testimony of two Maine State Police detectives during Atwood’s hearing last month, which rested heavily on statements by other people. No forensic evidence has been presented to link Atwood to the murder of either woman.
Instead, circumstantial evidence and hearsay are what hold the state’s case together, according to Mills. In her ruling on bail, Mills said the state relied only on state police Detective Bryant Jacques’ 17-page affidavit and request for arrest. It was “replete with hearsay,” Mills concluded, adding that no physical evidence was presented to support Jacques’ affidavit.
Some of the evidence the state presented included finding Moon-Atwood’s wallet and wedding ring in the Atwood home, and locating Murdoch’s broken cell phone in a trash bag at the home.
In her ruling this week on severing the cases, Mills wrote that not enough evidence was presented to show that the two events were linked in time, purpose or method. She also wrote that it was unclear at this time whether all of the evidence against Atwood involving one of the killings would be allowed in the trial of the other.
At the bail hearing last Friday, prosecutor Benson told Mills that the evidence in both cases is linked and that virtually the same evidence would be presented in both cases.
Defense attorney Clark, however, argued that the state was trying to pull along a weak case involving Moon-Atwood, where they have no body, by linking it with the Murdoch case.
“The state’s theory is that [Atwood] killed one woman for one reason and killed the other for another reason, that they are two isolated incidents,” Alsop said. “If you tied them both together and the jury decided to convict on one count, they could leap to judgment on the other. There would be a high risk of prejudice.”
Benson would not comment on the ruling Tuesday.
Atwood has been unable to make the $200,000 bail and remains jailed awaiting his trials.