State v. Ledger

Decision Date26 April 1982
Citation444 A.2d 404
PartiesSTATE of Maine v. Harold LEDGER.
CourtMaine Supreme Court

Charles K. Leadbetter, Fernand LaRochelle, Anita St. Onge, Frederick C. Moore (orally), Wayne S. Moss, Asst. Attys. Gen., Augusta, for plaintiff.

Paine & Lynch, Martha J. Harris (orally), Bangor, for defendant.

Before McKUSICK, C. J., and NICHOLS, ROBERTS, CARTER and VIOLETTE, JJ.

CARTER, Justice.

The defendant, Harold Ledger, has appealed from a judgment of conviction entered in the Superior Court, Somerset County, on a jury verdict finding him guilty of the murder of his wife, Carrie Ledger, in violation of 17-A M.R.S.A. § 201(1)(A). 1 We deny the appeal and affirm the judgment of conviction.

The jury would have been warranted in finding the following facts. The defendant resided in Smithfield with the victim, his wife, Carrie Ledger, until February 10, 1980. Shortly after he left the Smithfield home, the victim initiated a divorce action. The defendant thereafter manifested substantial antagonism toward the victim over a period of three months. He and the victim argued frequently when he returned to Smithfield on nearly a daily basis to feed his dogs. In late April, the defendant told a Somerset County sheriff that "someone" would be killed if the divorce action were pursued. On at least one occasion, he directly asked his wife to drop the suit; when she refused, he became visibly upset. The defendant's anguish over the matter was prompted by his concern for the ownership and integrity of the personal property he left in Smithfield. Indeed, he voiced this concern to a deputy sheriff and even asked that his wife be arrested in order to prevent her from tampering with his property.

The defendant stored several guns, including two handguns, at his mother's house in Norridgewock. Several weeks before the homicide, he retrieved one of the handguns.

The defendant's uncle, Albert Ledger, who was employed in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, at the time of Carrie Ledger's death, maintained a home in Skowhegan, but lived during the week in Kittery. On Sunday, May 11, 1980, the defendant agreed to drive Albert Ledger to Kittery, and Carrie Ledger accepted the defendant's invitation to accompany them. She drove Albert Ledger and his wife in their car, and the defendant drove separately in his own to Kittery. The glove compartment of the defendant's car contained a .22 caliber handgun. The defendant and the victim returned in the defendant's car from Kittery to the defendant's residence, a trailer, in Skowhegan.

While no direct evidence of the assailant's identity was presented at trial, the victim was sitting in the passenger seat of the defendant's car when she was shot twice in the left side of her head from within a distance of two feet. The resulting wounds were fatal. The bullets, both .22 caliber long rifle hollow points (which the evidence established could be fired from a .22 caliber handgun), travelled in virtually a lateral path from one side of her head towards the other. Bullets of the same type, though perhaps made by a different manufacturer, were found in the defendant's Skowhegan residence. The defendant's .22 caliber handgun was never found. 2

With his wife's body still in the car, the defendant drove aimlessly during the night of May 11. The next day, he covered the body with a tarp and some tree boughs, and he parked the car in a hospital parking lot. Sometime later, the defendant retrieved his second car and drove to his mother's camp in Canaan. He remained there alone until May 16. That evening, he called his mother and asked her to bring him some food and to pick him up. When she arrived with the defendant's daughter, the defendant told them that his wife had been shot. The three drove to the Somerset County Sheriff's Office where the defendant reported his wife's death to several officers. Her death was evidently unknown to the authorities until that time. As a result of the defendant's report, an officer was dispatched immediately to the hospital parking lot. A deputy sheriff asked the defendant to accompany him to the Skowhegan Police Station, and the defendant responded, "I will go willingly, no cuffs, I'm tired of running." When interviewed, the defendant presented a version essentially identical to that narrated at trial. See note 2 supra.

The defendant was indicted for the murder of Carrie Ledger on July 10, 1980, and he was convicted after a jury trial.

1. Juror Prejudice

Pursuant to M.R.Crim.P. 21(a), the defendant moved on August 18, 1980, for a change of venue from Somerset County on the ground of prejudicial pretrial publicity. Presented at the October 24 hearing on this motion were a series of newspaper articles and what appears to be script copy for use by the electronic media. 3 Except for one article, which reported the scheduled hearing on the motion to change venue itself, all of the media accounts presented at the hearing reported certain developments in the case through the defendant's arraignment on July 28 when he entered a plea of not guilty. The earlier reports include the discovery of the victim's body after the defendant told officers that she had been shot and could be found in the parking lot, the existence of an undisclosed suspect in the homicide, and the defendant's arrest in connection with the shooting. The sole photograph accompanying those articles depicts the defendant, who is not handcuffed or restrained, walking to the Somerset County Courthouse escorted by his counsel and a uniformed deputy sheriff.

Because the defendant moved well before trial to change venue and because the motion was not renewed at trial itself, we construe the August 18 motion as urging the court to change venue irrespective of whether the veniremembers were found to be actually prejudiced against the defendant. "A due process violation can occur when the publicity surrounding the case is of such an extensive and invidious nature as to constitute prejudice per se, in which case actual prejudice need not be shown." State v. Grant, Me., 418 A.2d 154, 158 (1980). See State v. Clark, Me., 386 A.2d 317, 320 (1978); State v. Littlefield, Me., 374 A.2d 590, 593-94 (1977); State v. Ifill, Me., 349 A.2d 176, 179-80 (1975).

The media coverage, as presented to the court below, cannot be characterized as sufficiently extensive or invidious to render any jury drawn in Somerset County presumptively prejudiced. The media reports here are factual accounts of the developments in this case. The press and electronic media could be expected to be drawn to a story of this significance. Their reports appear to be factual and not sensational in tone. They did not urge official action or take any position on the question of the defendant's guilt or innocence. See Clark, 386 A.2d at 320; Littlefield, 374 A.2d at 593. Further, the media accounts presented at the October 24 hearing on the motion to change venue related to pretrial events, thereby allowing any impact they might in fact have had to dissipate before trial commenced several months later. See Clark, 386 A.2d at 320; Littlefield, 374 A.2d at 594. In Littlefield and Clark, we upheld the denial of a change of venue, sought by the defendant on constitutional grounds, in the face of pretrial publicity which was facially more prejudicial than that found here. We can find no error in the lower court's ruling that such publicity did not here create prejudice per se in this case.

The defendant here argues, on appeal, apparently for the first time, that the motion justice abused his discretion, apart from the constitutional claim, in failing to grant his August 18 motion for change of venue. We have found no such abuse in past cases involving media accounts which permit a stronger demonstration of the likelihood of potential prejudice than can be made in the case at bar. See Clark, 386 A.2d at 321; Littlefield, 374 A.2d at 595-96; State v. Coty, Me., 229 A.2d 205, 211 (1967); State v. Hale, 157 Me. 361, 366, 172 A.2d 631, 634 (1961). No such abuse of discretion can be found here.

The defendant's brief on this appeal may further be construed to raise, also for the first time in this case, the issue of actual prejudice among the jury panel. Even were it cognizable, this claim is without merit. Inquiry was made into whether any veniremembers were familiar with the case. Two persons who later sat on the jury panel stated on voir dire that they had only vague recollections of the incident, but each also stated that he or she had not formed any opinion as to the defendant's guilt or innocence. A third had been told by his wife that this case was scheduled for the period during which he would serve as a juror. On voir dire, he stated that he immediately told his wife "that I had better not hear any more...."

The objective of inquiries into the veniremembers' familiarity with a case "is to ascertain whether the potential jurors have acquired a bias or prejudice against the defendant or a fixed and settled impression as to his guilt or innocence." State v. Heald, Me., 333 A.2d 696, 698 (1975). Counsel for the defense posed questions during voir dire specifically designed to elicit this information, and the responses provided by those later selected as jurors clearly show that they had no pre-existing bias, prejudice, or settled impression as to the defendant's guilt or innocence. That several of the veniremembers, including some who were later selected as jurors, had some knowledge of the case is not inconsistent with the constitutional requirements of due process. See Lewisohn v. State, Me., 433 A.2d 351, 355 (1981); Littlefield, 374 A.2d at 595; cf. State v. Kelley, Me., 357 A.2d 890, 898 (1976). As the defendant has not demonstrated the existence of actual prejudice against the defendant among the jurors, cf. Murphy v. Florida, 421 U.S. 794, 800, 95 S.Ct. 2031, 2036, 44 L.Ed.2d 589, 595 (1975), we find no obvious...

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