Maine Supreme Court overturns attempted murder conviction in Aroostook County

Nov. 9—A Black man convicted of attempted murder last year will receive a new trial after Maine's highest court found the Aroostook County district attorney made "improper comments" to a jury.

The prosecutor told jurors that they had a "duty" to find Jomo White guilty and may have alluded to drug-dealing activities for which he was not on trial, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court said in its ruling Tuesday. The prosecutor also falsely implied there was something wrong with White's constitutionally protected decision not to testify during his trial, the justices said.

"We cannot ignore the context: Aroostook County is overwhelmingly white, and the defendant here was an out-of-state, Black, self-acknowledged drug dealer," the court wrote. White is originally from Atlanta, Georgia. "The prosecutor should have taken great pains to ensure that the jury focused on the elements of the offenses charged and the relevant issues relating to White's defenses. Instead, the prosecutor incessantly referenced drugs and drug dealing, diverting the jury from its legitimate task and implicitly invoking xenophobia and racial stereotyping."

District Attorney Todd Collins was not named in the ruling but confirmed Wednesday that he worked on White's case with two other prosecutors in his office.

He declined to share a reaction to the court's decision, saying it "would be inappropriate for the DA's Office to comment on the specifics of a pending matter" that has been remanded for a new trial.

"The primary responsibility of a prosecutor is to seek justice, which can only be achieved by the representation and presentation of the truth," Collins wrote in an email Wednesday. "In both success and failure, there are lessons to be learned; I always hope to learn them and continue the endeavor to live up to my duty as a public prosecutor."

White, who was 31 at the time, was the first of three people arrested in September 2019 following a shooting at a home in Presque Isle. In a summary of White's trial, the court says White arrived at the victim's house with a gun and at least one accomplice.

White went there to take money and drugs after he recently fought with the victim over a drug sale. The victim, who was armed and wearing body armor, shot at White first. White shot back several times — hitting him once in the arm and twice in the chest — before fleeing.

The victim was taken to a hospital in Bangor via helicopter in critical condition but survived. Several schools were put in lockdown while police searched for White. Once arrested, he told them he had acted in self-defense but had "shot to kill," according to court documents.

White was indicted and later found guilty on five charges — attempted murder, elevated aggravated assault, robbery, reckless conduct with a dangerous weapon and illegally possessing a firearm with a previous felony conviction.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court vacated that conviction Tuesday and ordered a new trial, saying Collins' office made two "improper" statements during White's seven-day trial in 2021.

The court found that he acted improperly when he asked the jury in his opening statement "to hold the defendant accountable for his criminal actions," because it was argumentative and alluded to drug crimes that White was not being tried for.

White's defense attorney requested a mistrial at least twice, but the judge allowed the trial to continue after advising jurors not to consider the prosecutor's comments.

Verne Paradie, the attorney handling White's appeal, did not return a message left with his office.