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Maine Supreme Court tosses attempted murder conviction over 'improper' prosecutor comments

Maine's Supreme Judicial Court has overturned an attempted murder conviction because an Aroostook County prosecutor made improper comments to the jury.

Jomo White, who is Black, had been sentenced to 26 years for attempted murder in a drug-related shootout in Presque Isle.

He had asked for a mistrial on multiple occasions during his seven-day trial last year, citing comments made by prosecutors in their opening and closing arguments.

Prosecutors had made multiple references to White's status as an illicit drug dealer, even though he didn't receive a drug charge in this case.

"[With] the community's overall sentiment about people up there selling drugs and from out of state, it was my concern that he just wasn't going to get a fair trial," said Verne Paradie, White's attorney. "I felt during opening arguments and closing arguments especially that the comments made by the prosecutor were very prejudicial and unfair to Mr. White."

Maine's law court agreed. In a ruling released earlier this week, the court said it was wrong for prosecutors to criticize White for not testifying and to suggest that the jury had a duty to convict him.

White will now receive a new trial.

"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's ruling reads. "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."

It's rare for the law court to overturn a criminal conviction, Paradie said. The ruling is significant for criminal defendants and their attorneys across Maine, he added.

"Hopefully this decision will send a message to the prosecution that you can't do this, and there will be consequences if you make an improper argument," Paradie said.

The Aroostook County Superior Court will set a new trial date, Paradie said.