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Trial for Jay man accused of murder begins in Farmington

James "Ted" Sweeney in court Monday morning.

FARMINGTON - The trial for a man accused of murdering a Jay woman with a baseball bat got underway Monday morning with opening statements and testimony from several witnesses.

James "Ted" Sweeney was arrested on July 11, 2017 for the alleged murder of Wendy Douglass, age 51, following a state police investigation that began after Sweeney drove himself to the Androscoggin County Jail that morning. In describing Sweeney's actions during her opening statement, Assistant Attorney General Meg Elam said that 58-year-old man arrived at the Auburn facility just before 8 a.m. and took the time to back into a parking spot as directed by signs. Sweeney then went into the lobby of the jail and indicated that he was "going to jail cause [he] hurt [his] girlfriend," asking police to check a residence at 5 Jewell Street in Jay.

"I did wrong," Sweeney wrote at the end of the short note he then gave to Anita Goodwin, then a senior control officer at Androscoggin County jail. Sweeney communicated via paper and pen because he is deaf.

While Goodwin took the note to members of the sheriff's office and jail personnel in a nearby staff meeting, dispatchers made contact with Jay police to conduct a well-being check on the Jewell Street residence. Police entered to discover a first-floor bedroom with a closed door, the bottom crack blocked by a fleece vest. Taped on the door was a note which the state says was written by Sweeney, claiming that Douglass was cheating on him and accusing her that she "lie lie lie a lot." The note was signed "Ted" in quotation marks; Sweeney's son, Patrick Libby, later testified that his father signed his notes in that manner.

Inside the room, police found Douglass' body. She had been struck at least twice in the head with a blunt object that caused skull and brain injuries that the medical examiner says led to her death.

Investigators with state police's Major Crimes Unit made a number of discoveries that Elam said tied Sweeney to Douglass' death. These included text messages from Sweeney to his son, Libby, between 7:33 a.m. to 7:41 a.m. on the morning of July 11, 2017 saying "jail time for me now," an email to a minister that once again accused Douglass of being unfaithful, Sweeney's fingerprint on the tape used to affix the note to Douglass' bedroom door, and a softball bat recovered from the Douglass residence, resting in a bucket, with Douglass' blood and Sweeney's DNA on it. Douglass' blood was also discovered on a t-shirt and one sock worn by Sweeney when he arrived at the Androscoggin County jail on the morning of July 11.

Following a multi-year relationship, Douglass had broken up with Sweeney shortly before her death. She did allow Sweeney to stay in the house until he found a new place to live, according to Elam.

Both the state, represented by Elam and Assistant Attorney General Leane Zainea; and Sweeney's defense, consisting of attorneys Thomas Carey and Walter Hanstein, agree that Sweeney was jealous of Douglass to an obsessive degree. This jealousy reportedly manifested itself in Sweeney following Douglass - sometimes to a point where he is alleged to have borrowed vehicles and worn wigs and/or hats to escape detection. He repeatedly questioned individuals about Douglass' fidelity, telling Libby that he had installed a camera in the residence to monitor comings and goings.

Everyone, from witnesses testifying in court Monday to the state's prosecutors to Sweeney's attorneys, agreed that Sweeney's concerns with Douglass were utterly without merit.

For the state, Sweeney's jealousy and possessiveness represented a motive for the murder.

According to the opening statement by Carey, one of Sweeney's defense attorneys, the obsessive behavior represented instead a mental illness. Sweeney entered a plea of not criminally responsible by reason of insanity to the charge of murder in October 2018.

Calling the murder a complicated, nuanced case, Carey said that Sweeney's deafness had impacted the diagnosis of a mental illness. He said that witnesses would indicate that the six to eight months leading up to Douglass' death had marked an escalation in Sweeney's behavior in regards to Douglass. At the time of Douglass' death, Carey said in his opening statement, Sweeney's "brain was on fire."

Elam addressed that defense in her own opening statement, saying that Sweeney had never been hospitalized for a mental illness and would be unable to meet the legal burden of proof regarding an insanity defense.

Under Maine statute, a defendant is not criminal responsible by reason of insanity if, as a result of mental disease or defect that impairs his or her comprehension of reality, he or she lacks "substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of the criminal conduct."

The case is being heard by a judge, rather than a jury, with Justice William Stokes presiding.

Witnesses testifying Monday included Goodwin and Androscoggin County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy William Gagne, who initially interacted with Sweeney in the jail lobby and brought him to an interview room in the sheriff's office. Both said that Sweeney seemed calm and cooperative during their interactions, which were primarily through notes.

Stokes also heard testimony from Douglass' mother, Cynthia Mulhern, regarding an incident that is alleged to have occurred prior to the July 11, 2017 death of Douglass. Mulhern testified that her daughter came to her house in the morning and told her that she had awoken to Sweeney pointing a gun at her face, telling Douglass he intended to kill her and then himself. Libby also testified in relation to that incident, having taken Sweeney to St. Mary's Regional Medical Center later that day.

Libby also testified that on the night of July 10, 2017 - the evening prior to the discovery of Douglass' body - he was texted by his father to come pick him up and drive him to a store to buy cigarettes. His father asked for the ride because he said he had been drinking.

Libby said that his father repeatedly brought up the issue of Douglass' supposed cheating, but refused to produce the proof he told his son he had. The accusations involved different individuals, Libby said, beginning with his uncle - Sweeney's brother - who had lived at the Jewell Street residence for a time. The accusations were untrue, Libby said, who was then asked how Douglass reacted to Sweeney's theories.

"Wendy [Douglass] pretty much shrugged it off because it weren't true," Libby said.

The case is anticipated to last all week at the Franklin County Courthouse.

[Editor's Note: Attorney Walter Hanstein and the reporter are related.]

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8 Responses »

  1. A murder trial and no jury??????

  2. I ask every time; why do the ‘alledged’ murderers always get the best of attorneys, I’m sure at our expense...

  3. @ Old Maineiac
    Defendants have the choice of a judge or jury trial.

  4. @Captain - if it was you, wouldn’t you want the best? Murder defendants have the most to lose. “At our expense?” Probably. It’s what our basic principles of justice demand.

  5. Why does it take so long to get an alleged murderer to trial even after he confesses? Guilty or not, couldn't it be heard in court before this?

  6. Foremost in our judicial system are its rules and procedures. Only after all are met will a trial take place with more rules and procedures to contend with.

  7. Bobby, the murder victim has the most to lose....However we’ll have to endure the boohooing of how confessed killers have the same rights to the best attorneys as someone who doesn’t choose to commit such a crime.

  8. why do we have to have constitutionally protected rights at all? it's so unfair!