Were potential witnesses intimidated by warnings about self-incrimination and did the jury rush to convict a man of burning down a topless coffee shop in Vassalboro?

Those are the questions being raised as Raymond Bellavance Jr. makes his bid for a new trial after he was found guilty of setting fire to the Grand View Topless Coffee Shop.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court in Portland heard Bellavance’s appeal Tuesday afternoon as attorneys from both sides made their case.

Bellavance’s attorney, Andrews Campbell, argued before the high court that his client was deprived of a fair trial resulting from the late introduction of a surprise prosecution witness and “a lot of time pressure” on the jurors to reach a verdict in the period between the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney argued that the justices should uphold the guilty verdict returned by jurors Dec. 30, 2011.

“There’s nothing in the record to suggest (the judge) was putting any pressure on the jury to come back with a verdict that day,” Maloney told the court.

The supreme court generally rules months after hearing oral arguments.

Bellavance, 51, is serving 30 years at the Maine State Prison in Warren for the arson. He has consistently denied setting the fire that destroyed the coffee shop on Route 3 in Vassalboro, which featured topless waitresses and waiters serving coffee and doughnuts, and attracted national media attention when it opened.

Questions from the supreme court justices also centered on Campbell’s contention that some of the witnesses called by the defense opted not to testify after hearing from attorneys about the consequences, including possible charges against them. He also objected to immunity given to Thomas Mulkern, who became the prime witness for the prosecution after he testified he helped carry the gasoline cans and watched Bellavance start the fire.

Campbell said the defense attorneys received such late notice of Mulkern’s critical testimony that they were unable to shift their trial strategy.

“This guy was up to his ears in drugs,” Campbell said of Mulkern.

Campbell also said Justice Michaela Murphy overstepped her bounds in conveying through an attorney a caution about self-incrimination to Christopher Partridge, a witness who had been expected to testify for the defense and provide an alibi for Bellavance.

Partridge eventually chose not to testify at trial.

The coffee shop business, owned by Donald Crabtree, opened in February 2009 and sparked controversy in the community and beyond, later prompting Vassalboro and other local communities to pass municipal ordinances regulating sexually oriented businesses.

The coffee shop operated in a former motel. Seven people — Crabtree, his two daughters, their infant children and their boyfriends — were sleeping there the night of the fire, which was reported just before 1 a.m. June 3, 2009, by a passing ambulance crew. All the residents escaped the gasoline-fueled blaze without injury.

Alan Kelley prosecuted the case for the Kennebec County District Attorney’s Office. Maloney, who became district attorney in January, presented the oral arguments to the state supreme court.

Kelley maintained throughout the trial that Bellavance burned down the coffee shop because he didn’t want his on-and-off girlfriend, Krista MacIntyre, to continue working there as a topless waitress.

Betty Adams — 621-5631
badams@centralmaine.com