AUGUSTA — Jurors on Thursday cleared Alexander J. Biddle of a manslaughter charge related to an ATV crash in Sidney that killed 18-year-old Halee Cummings.

Biddle, 23, of Pittston, did not testify during the three-day trial at the Capital Judicial Center, and his defense did not call witnesses of its own.

Biddle was driving a Polaris 850 ATV late on Sept. 18, 2015, on Shepard Road when it went off the side of a gravel driveway and struck several trees. He had been drinking beforehand — his blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.063 percent, just below the 0.08 legal driving limit for adults — and was speeding at 50-60 mph to avoid a nearby police cruiser.

Outside the courthouse Thursday, Biddle’s defense attorney, Pasquale “Pat” Perrino, called the case “a tragedy all the way around.”

“It’s a tragic case,” Perrino said, “and the state, based on my experience as a former state prosecutor, they just didn’t have the evidence to convict of a homicide, be it manslaughter or anything else.”

The jury of seven women and five men began deliberations at 11:30 a.m. and returned to the courtroom just after 1 p.m. Thursday with a verdict of not guilty.

Even though the judge had warned everyone in the courtroom against showing reaction when the verdict was read, someone sitting beside Biddle in the courtroom clapped. Biddle, who has appeared stoic throughout the trial and kept looking down at the defense table, did not seem to react to the not guilty verdict. He has been free on unsecured bail and the judge discharged that.

About Biddle’s decision not to testify, Perrino said, “Any statements that he would have said on the stand were going to come in through the police officer that testified, so there was no need to subject him to any more than he had already (gone through). As you saw, his head was down during the entire trial, he has been non-responsive, he lost a very close friend and he will suffer personally for the rest of his life.”

Cummings’ family members left immediately, and the court officer asked the defendant’s family to wait a few minutes before they left.

Perrino said there already was some financial settlement in the case, but he did not handle that.

Afterward, Deputy District Attorney Paul Cavanaugh, the prosecutor, said in a text message that he was disappointed in the verdict but appreciated the jury’s time and effort.

“No verdict would have returned Halee to her family,” Cavanaugh wrote. “We hope those that enjoy Maine with four-wheelers and ATVs will learn from this death and not repeat the choices made here — don’t drive when you feel impaired by alcohol; always wear a helmet; drive at safe speeds for the road conditions. Remember, a young life was unnecessarily cut short.”

This was an unusual vehicular manslaughter case. Others generally involve motor vehicles on public roads as well as charges of criminal operating under the influence and other factors.

In a Washington County case, Troy R. Dennison was indicted in July 2015 on a charges of manslaughter, operating an ATV under the influence, reckless conduct with a dangerous weapon, reckless operation of an ATV and endangering the welfare of a child. A press release sent by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Maine Warden Service says the Aug. 24, 2013, incident occurred when a child riding on Dennison’s side-by-side utility ATV pushed down the accelerator, and the vehicle went down an embankment, killing Dennison’s 4-year-old nephew who had been playing there.

According to an administrative assistant at the Washington County District Attorney’s Office, records show that Dennison was placed on a deferred disposition for a year and that the six charges were dismissed June 20, 2017, when he successfully completed that.

The manslaughter charge, which would have carried a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison, had alleged that Biddle caused Cummings’ death “recklessly, or with criminal negligence”

Cavanaugh, the prosecutor, told jurors in his closing argument, “This is a difficult, emotional case involving young people in a tragedy.” But he also said that Biddle’s choice to speed up after his ATV encountered a deputy’s cruiser, to drink alcohol that night, to carry a passenger against the manufacturer’s warning, not to wear safety gear including helmets for him and his passenger, add up to recklessness and/or criminal negligence.

“The accumulation of bad decisions does make this a crime,” Cavanaugh said in urging jurors to find Biddle guilty of manslaughter.

Cavanaugh said Biddle’s ATV with Cummings aboard “crossed Shepherd Road and went down the driveway until it went left and they continued straight. The ATV rolled over, ended up in the driveway … That catapulted Halee into that tree; it killed her.”

Cavanaugh illustrated his closing argument with a PowerPoint presentation, showing a color photo of Cummings’ blue-jean clad body on the ground near trees, audio clips from an interview by police with Biddle that night, and legal definitions of recklessness and criminal negligence.

The prosecutor said Biddle’s conduct was “a gross deviation of how a reasonable and prudent person would drive.”

Cavanaugh added, “Accidents are unavoidable. This crash and Halee’s death was completely avoidable.”

Perrino told jurors in his opening statement, “An accident is an accident.” He maintained that argument in his closing argument as well, saying that the criminal investigation by the Maine Warden Service was “sloppy.”

He cited the decision not to conduct an autopsy on Cummings’ body, and the fact that samples of blood and hair found on the tree that apparently Cummings’ struck were not taken, among other things.

Perrino said that Biddle sped up that night only at Cummings’ request. Perrino referred to Trooper Jesse Duda’s audio recording of Biddle’s statement at the hospital that night. On it, Biddle says, “That’s a cop; let’s get out of here.'” In that same interview, Biddle sent his apologies to Cummings’ family. Biddle also wondered about whether he would be charged with manslaughter, and said he was traveling 50-60 mph.

Another ATV operator who was riding behind Biddle’s machine testified they were traveling 20-25 mph down Philbrick Road and that he came upon Biddle’s overturned four-wheeler on Harland Cummings’ driveway, across the Shepherd Road.

Perrino blamed the crash on potholes in the dirt driveway rather than on the curve in the driveway to Harland “Hardy” Cummings’ home.

“If you’ve ever ridden a four-wheeler you know how dangerous potholes can be especially on a dirt road,” Perrino said.

As Perrino addressed jurors, Halee Cummings’ mother teared up, holding tissues in her hand.

“This was an accident; it was a tragic accident,” Perrino said. “And these people are quick to think that because there’s a very pretty girl involved in this accident that’s dead that somebody’s going to pay.”

He also faulted the state for bringing a manslaughter indictment against Biddle almost two years after Cummings was killed. A grand jury in Kennebec County returned the indictment July 20, 2017.

In rebuttal, Cavanaugh said the investigation was done carefully, which took a long time.

On Tuesday, the opening day of the trial, jurors were driven to view several locations where Biddle and Cummings traveled on the ATV that night.

Halee Cummings is buried on a small hill overlooking the family’s dairy farm. The Cummings family started an annual barrel-racing competition in Cummings’ memory because she was an accomplished horseback rider.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams

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