AUGUSTA — Images of Justin V. Smith’s life flashed on a screen Wednesday as the man who killed him was brought into Kennebec County Superior Court.
Smith, of South China, was 26 when he was shot in the face outside a Waterville pub last December by Matthew Partridge, 30, of Winslow. Partridge pleaded guilty to manslaughter Wednesday and will serve at least 15 years in prison.
Dozens of images appeared on the projection screen as Smith’s mother, Brenda Smith, told the judge of the trauma caused by her son’s death. The pictures were of a smiling Smith with his family at home on a couch with an afghan stretched across the back, posing outside near snowmobiles, playing in a pool, wearing a red devil costume for Halloween and interacting with his own son, Tucker.
Brenda Smith and others who spoke in court repeatedly referred to Partridge as a coward. Partridge shot at Smith twice after Smith punched him in the face while Partridge sat in his pickup truck.
“We believe Justin was intentionally murdered. That coward, he had so many choices. Why didn’t he just leave?” she asked, adding, “He knew he had that gun in his car and he knew what he was going to do with it.”
She referred briefly to Partridge’s military training: “He knew exactly what shot to take to take my son’s life.”
As Brenda Smith spoke, many of the people in the courtroom wiped their eyes with their hands or tissues.
“We, his family, are proud of him,” she said. “We hold our heads high when we talk about Justin.”
More than two dozen of the victim’s friends and relatives watched the hearing, and several occasionally hollered comments of disapproval.
Two other people who sat in a separate area of the courtroom said they were there for Partridge.
Partridge was charged initially with murder, but he accepted a deal to plead guilty to manslaughter.
Under a recommendation supported jointly by state and defense attorneys and approved by the judge, Partridge was sentenced to 25 years in prison, with all but 15 years suspended, and four years’ probation. The maximum sentence for manslaughter is 30 years in prison, Justice Michaela Murphy said. Murphy was scheduled to preside over Partridge’s jury-waived trial, which was to begin on Monday.
The balding Partridge was brought into court in shackles, and the handcuffs were removed as he sat with his attorneys, Pamela Ames and Brad Grant.
“Guilty, ma’am,” Partridge told Murphy when she asked for his plea to the manslaughter charge.
Except for short “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am” responses to the judge’s questions, he said nothing publicly.
The prosecutor, Assistant Attorney General Andrew Benson, described how the shooting occurred late on Dec. 4. “This was the tail end of a barroom brawl,” he said.
Benson said there was an altercation about a cigarette that witnesses said did not involve Partridge or Smith.
Smith had been out that night with two other men, Joshua Broad and Christopher Oxley, according to an affidavit filed by Maine State Police Detective Joshua Birmingham. Broad and Oxley were approached outside the pub by two strangers, later identified as Tucker Foxwell and Partridge.
One of the men punched Oxley in the face, but that fight ended after Oxley said he had a concealed weapons permit. Broad and Oxley went into the pub to get Smith, Birmingham said, and the trio came out and approached Partridge’s Dodge Dakota pickup.
Benson said Smith asked Partridge, “Who liked to sucker punch people?” and punched Partridge in the nose as Partridge was sitting in the driver’s seat of his truck.
Smith put his hands up after seeing Partridge with a gun, Benson said, and Partridge fired two shots at him.
Emergency responders found Smith with a gunshot wound to his upper lip, and initially with a pulse. However, Smith was dead on arrival at MaineGeneral Medical Center’s Thayer campus. The state’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Margaret Greenwald, testified previously that Smith died of a single gunshot wound to the head.
Christopher Oxley called Partridge a monster.
“Smitty was already backing away,” Oxley said in court on Wednesday. “This man murdered my friend.”
Oxley said he was sure Smith was in heaven. “I’ll probably see you in hell,” he said, turning to look at Partridge.
Oxley remained standing near the microphone as Brenda Smith told the court about her only son, his love of nature and his support for his friends.
“On the night we lost our son, we know with all our being, Justin was out to protect Chris,” Brenda Smith said. “He never saw that gun. His sole intent was to let this coward know, ‘Don’t mess with my friend.’”
She said both in the courtroom and afterward outside the courthouse that she plans to work to tighten rules governing who can get a concealed weapons permit. “They need to pay for their own full federal background check and full psychological evaluation. I can’t imagine that they’re not doing this anyway.”
Partridge’s mother said previously that Partridge obtained a concealed-weapon permit for a 9 mm handgun several months before the shooting. She also said Partridge graduated from Winslow High School in 2001 and enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2002. He was a lance corporal and served four active and four inactive years, including about eight months in Iraq in 2005.
Several of Justin Smith’s family members talked about Partridge having been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder before the shooting and apparently before getting the permit.
Brenda Smith asked why Partridge was drinking alcohol if he had PTSD and why, if he was drinking, he would have a weapon in his vehicle.
She also said she wants to see laws changed so that “if somebody shoots someone and they’re not armed, it’s not self-defense. That needs to be changed, especially when they’re under the influence of alcohol.”
She told the judge, “No sentence outside of death would be enough for the coward who stole our son from us.”
Police recovered the weapon, a Sig Sauer handgun, as well as a shell casing from inside Partridge’s truck and a second shell casing on the Waterville Concourse. Partridge drove off after the shooting and was stopped about 20 minutes later by a state trooper.
He has been in custody since then.
Murphy told Partridge the state would have to prove that he acted with criminal negligence or recklessly if he went to trial on the manslaughter charge.
Ames told the judge that the defense would have argued that Partridge acted in self-defense, and that Partridge had two pieces of broken bone in his nose that would have been caused solely by the Smith’s punch. Ames said the defense would have argued that there was adequate provocation for the shooting and that Partridge was in fear for his life after Smith punched him.
As Ames spoke, a man who was sitting with the group of Smith’s family and friends, yelled, “You’re joking.” The judge immediately cautioned the spectators about their behavior, saying, “Everybody has a right to be heard respectfully.”
When the judge added a condition of probation banning Partridge from contact with Smith’s family members, Oxley hollered, “Oh, he can come see me any time.”
Deputies from the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office immediately took posts flanking him, but he remained in the courtroom without making any further outburst.
“Very clearly what occurred shook the community of Waterville,” Murphy said. “It has irreparably harmed and damaged a very close family unit.” She also referred to Smith’s son, “a young boy who will grow up without a father. At the same time, I am sure Mr. Partridge’s family has suffered anguish.”
She said she would withhold approval of the sentence unless probation conditions included a ban on Partridge having alcohol or intoxicants. Grant said the defense had no objection to that condition being added.
Nothing was formally presented at the hearing about Partridge’s background except for the prosecutor saying Partridge had no criminal record.
Later, as the group left the courtroom via an enclosed stairway, some people yelled — apparently addressing Partridge, “Rot in hell, scumbag” and “(expletive) loser.”
Betty Adams — 621-5631