ROCKLAND — A Brewer man will serve nine months in jail in connection with the beating death of a Maine State Prison inmate nearly five years ago, a punishment the victim’s widow called a “slap on the wrist.”
The full sentence of John Thibeault, 34, in Knox County Superior Court on Friday was eight years. However, all but nine months were suspended, per a plea agreement between the Maine Attorney General’s Office and Thibeault’s attorneys. Thibeault will be on probation for three years following his release and, if he violates probation at any point, will have to serve the remainder of the eight-year sentence.
He was indicted in July 2011 – more than two years after the death of Sheldon Weinstein, 64, originally of New York. Weinstein was serving a two-year sentence for sexually assaulting a young girl in Berwick in 2008. Thibeault was in prison on robbery charges.
Thibeault originally was charged with manslaughter but last week accepted a plea that dropped the manslaughter charge in exchange for a charge of aggravated assault. He pleaded no contest, which means he stopped short of admitting guilt.
The plea emerged after the state realized that it likely had enough evidence to prove that Thibeault assaulted Weinstein inside the prison but not enough to prove that he caused Weinstein’s death, according to Assistant Attorney General Leane Zainea.
Superior Court Justice Jeffrey Hjelm acknowledged the difficulty of prosecution and said although the plea agreement was “not satisfactory,” it was “responsive to the circumstances of the case.”
Last week, during a hearing outlining the plea agreement, Zainea said if the case went to trial she would have called three prisoners as witnesses to testify about the details of Weinstein’s death.
They would have testified that Thibeault and another inmate admitted that they had gone into Weinstein’s cell and struck him multiple times in the head and chest. Zainea also said that Thibeault and the accomplice, who has not been named, received permission from prison guards to “beat up the old guy.”
She said Weinstein was targeted because he was a sex offender. At the time of his death, Weinstein was in a wheelchair and suffering from complications from diabetes.
Weinstein died four days after the assault. He had been transferred to a segregated unit and was under observation but, other than bruises, showed no obvious injuries.
The state Medical Examiner’s Office ruled that Weinstein died from blunt force trauma, but his spleen had ruptured during the beating.
Weinstein’s widow, Janet, said she was tempted to ignore Friday’s hearing but felt compelled to speak for her husband.
“I don’t know why you did this,” she said, addressing Thibeault. “I think it would take a damaged person to attack a man in such a vulnerable and weakened condition.”
Referring to the sentence, she said, “I would consider this a slap on the wrist,” and added, “I do hope that at some point before you leave this Earth, the universe provides you payback, and I hope that all the unnamed people who participated receive the same punishment.”
Janet Weinstein filed a notice of intent in 2009 to sue the Maine Department of Corrections.
Her notice accused the department of indifference to “a culture of inmate violence in which jailhouse justice was meted out to inmates like Mr. Weinstein.”
On Friday, her attorney, Scott Gardner of Biddeford, said that lawsuit likely will go forward now that the case is closed. It will target both the Department of Corrections and the private company that provided health care services for the prison.
At least one prison official, Joshua Bailey, was dismissed because of Weinstein’s death. Another employee, Sgt. William Robinson, was demoted.
No prison employees, however, have been charged.
Janet Weinstein said the nearly five-year ordeal involving her husband’s death and the subsequent investigation has been “confusing, frustrating and painful.”
“This (plea) agreement just continues the mystery for me,” she said.
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: