Jun. 3—A lawyer for an Old Orchard Beach man convicted of murdering his roommate in 2019 asked the state's highest court on Thursday to overturn his 40-year sentence because the court relied too heavily on comparable cases that went to trial, instead of ending with a guilty plea like this one.
A prosecutor argued that Dustan Bentley did receive significant credit for accepting responsibility for his crime but still deserved his sentence because of its violent nature.
Bentley, 32, pleaded guilty in February 2020 to killing 65-year-old William Popplewell in their apartment the year before. While the penalty for murder ranges from 25 years to life in prison, his sentence is the maximum allowed under a plea agreement. Superior Court Justice Wayne Douglas said at the sentencing hearing that he considered the defendant's decision to plead guilty and his chaotic upbringing among the mitigating factors, but he also described the murder as "savage, sustained and cruel."
Bentley waived his right to appeal his conviction when he entered the plea, but he still had the right to petition the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to review his sentence. The justices heard oral arguments in the case Thursday. The case is focused on the state's sentencing guidelines and the process judges use to impose penalties for felonies.
Attorney Joseph Mekonis, who represents Bentley, argued that his client could have received a lesser sentence if the judge had not used the wrong cases as a benchmark. He did not say in his written brief or argument what the penalty should have been, but he argued at sentencing hearing for 28 years.
"You did a remarkable job for your client by getting the state to agree to a sentence of no greater than 40 years for the savage, extended killing of a vulnerable, elderly man," Justice Ellen Gorman said to Mekonis. "And yet, you are here arguing that the 40-year sentence imposed by the trial court was in error. How can that be possible?"
"Yes, 40 years was a cap, and Mr. Bentley certainly understand that and the risks of trial," Mekonis responded. "But my job for him then, and then again today, was to see if a more just sentence less than 40 years could be imposed."
Assistant Attorney General Don Macomber said the judge reduced the final sentence by as much as 15 years because of the plea.
"There's not a penalty for going to trial," Macomber said. "Rather, you get a discount for accepting responsibility and pleading guilty, and that's what happened here."
Investigators said Bentley and Popplewell met at a Portland homeless shelter two years before the older man's death. Bentley moved into Popplewell's apartment at the Ocean Condos building in December 2018. In March 2019, an Old Orchard Beach police officer went to the apartment to deliver copies of summonses to Bentley for unrelated traffic offenses. Bentley was dripping sweat when he opened the door and claimed he had been cleaning. Douglas said an upstairs neighbor later reported that Bentley was shouting and raging for hours that afternoon.
Later that night, Bentley's mother reported to police that her son called her and told her he killed his roommate. Officers returned to the apartment and found a car near the door with the truck open and lined with a shower curtain. They found Bentley inside the apartment hallway near Popplewell's body, which was wrapped in plastic trash bags. An autopsy determined Popplewell died from blunt force trauma, multiple sharp force injuries and ligature strangulation.
Bentley gave conflicting statements about what happened. He told police that Popplewell attacked him with a knife, but acknowledged that the other man was in poor health and used a walker. He also said his roommate must have fallen on the knife during their fight, and that he did not call 911 himself because there was no cellphone service in the apartment. He did not speak about the incident at his plea hearing or at the sentencing, and the motive for the attack has never been clear.