Apr. 1—Maine's highest court upheld the 48-year prison sentence of a Stockton Springs woman convicted of murdering her 10-year-old daughter, Marissa Kennedy, more than three years ago.
In a ruling released Thursday, Maine's Supreme Judicial Court rejected appeals by Sharon Kennedy's attorneys that a Waldo County court was wrong to deny their requests to suppress her confessions and to grant a mistrial.
Kennedy, who went by the name Sharon Carrillo at the time of her arrest, was convicted of depraved indifference murder in December 2019 following a nine-day trial that featured brutal testimony of the abuse Marissa Kennedy received for months at the hands of her mother and stepfather. Kennedy's former husband, Julio Carrillo, is serving a 55-year sentence in the death.
Attorneys for Kennedy had also contested the length of the sentence and argued Superior Court Justice Robert Murray should have instructed jurors that Kennedy's own alleged abuse at the hands of her husband could factor into their verdict on the murder charge.
In their ruling, four of five Supreme Judicial Court justices agreed with Murray's decision to dismiss the claims that Kennedy falsely confessed to abusing her daughter because of her low cognitive ability, fear of her husband or her susceptibility to being influenced by detectives. Police extracted numerous videotaped confessions from Kennedy, who also showed detectives how and where abuse took place.
"Although the detectives did use leading questions and did exhort Carrillo to 'tell the truth,' the court found that there had been no use of any objectionable practices that undermined the fundamental fairness of the criminal justice system," the justices wrote. "The court's factual findings underlying its determinations of voluntariness are supported by competent evidence in the suppression record, and we discern no error in the court's application of the law to those facts."
The justices also rejected the defense attorneys' "sophisticated interpretation" of the law regarding her culpability as an accomplice if Kennedy was, herself, the victim of domestic abuse.
"A person may not avoid accountability for her own criminal acts because she may have been the victim of similar criminal acts perpetrated by another person unless she establishes that she committed her offenses under duress," the court ruled. On the issue of duress, or whether she participated in the abuse because she feared her husband, the justices said there was no evidence Kennedy was subjected to specific threats of imminent harm.
The majority opinion was signed by Justices Ellen Gorman, Thomas Humphrey, Andrew Horton and Catherine Connors.
In his dissenting opinion, Justice Joseph Jabar wrote that Kennedy was "denied a fair trial as a result of exceptionally prejudicial testimony elicited by the prosecution" during the last of the trial's 43 witnesses.
Kennedy's attorneys had called two psychologists as part of their efforts to counter the hours of incriminating police interviews played for jurors — interviews that included Kennedy saying "I should have stopped, I should have stopped" when asked about the abuse of her daughter.
Both psychologists testified that Kennedy was likely at higher risk of giving a false confession to police because of her low intellect and mental disabilities. The director of the State Forensic Service, Dr. Sarah Miller, testified she was "very confident that the risk factors are there" for a false confession but couldn't say Kennedy's confessions were real.
But during cross-examination by state prosecutors, Miller also recalled listening to interviews with Kennedy's prison cellmate — a woman who was, herself, convicted of murder in another brutal child abuse case — who alleged Kennedy told her she participated in physically and sexually abusing her daughter.
Kennedy's attorneys objected and asked the judge to declare a mistrial, saying the state prosecutors had acted in bad faith by exposing the jury to inadmissible hearsay. Murray denied the mistrial request but ordered the alleged jailhouse confession to be stricken from the record and directed jurors to disregard the exchange.
While the four other Superior Court justices said they had no reason to second-guess Murray's decision or question the jury's ability to disregard the testimony, Jabar pointed out that exchange was the last thing jurors heard before closing arguments from attorneys. Jabar also noted that the alleged jailhouse confession of sexual abuse — an allegation that was not raised against Kennedy elsewhere during the prosecution — was "exceptionally prejudicial."
"No matter what the trial judge said to the jury in the way of a curative instruction, he could not unring the bell or erase what the jury heard," Jabar wrote. "It would be extremely difficult to ignore this exchange, particularly because it involved revelations following leading questions made by an assistant attorney general to the director of the State Forensic Service."
Marissa Kennedy's death and the gut-wrenching details that emerged about the torture she endured in the final months of her life shocked Mainers. Compounding that shock, Kennedy's death occurred not long after that of a 4-year-old Wiscasset girl, Kendall Chick, who was found to have been abused for months by her grandfather's partner.
The two deaths also revealed systemic failures within programs that are supposed to protect children from abuse. Those failures ranged from poor communication between agencies, police who did not fully investigate abuse reports, overworked and understaffed child welfare agencies, and social workers who failed to notice signs of serious abuse.
In the wake of the cases, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services made multiple changes and hired dozens of additional staff.