Burton Hagar, appearing in court in April, has confessed repeatedly over the years to smothering his 4-month-old son at their home in Brunswick in 1979.

A judge’s ruling this week that the death of an infant 39 years ago was a homicide and not a case of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome is likely to lead to a plea agreement between prosecutors and the baby’s father, who had confessed repeatedly over the years to smothering his 4-month-old son.

Cumberland County Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren ruled on Wednesday that evidence that has come to light since Nathan Hagar was found dead in his crib in a Brunswick apartment on May 9, 1979, suggested the infant was likely smothered with a pillow. The death was originally attributed to SIDS, in which an infant dies of undetermined causes.

Burton Hagar, the baby’s father, had been charged with murder in April 2017, but the case couldn’t proceed until the court determined that a crime had been committed. It is the first time charges have resulted from investigations by the Maine State Police Unsolved Homicide Unit since it was formed in February 2016.

The ruling by Warren will trigger an agreement between prosecutors and Hagar’s lawyer to have Hagar plead guilty to manslaughter and receive a 15-year sentence. However, the guilty plea will be conditional, allowing Hagar to appeal Warren’s ruling to the state Supreme Judicial Court and withdraw his guilty plea if the Law Court determines that a crime wasn’t committed and the case shouldn’t be allowed to move ahead. The case was destined to end up before the state’s highest court because prosecutors have said they would have appealed Warren’s ruling if he had determined the boy’s death wasn’t a homicide.

“This case will present the Law Court an opportunity to do what other states have done and adopt the federal standard for the corpus delicti issue,” said Verne Paradie, Hagar’s lawyer. As Warren noted in his ruling, some states have adopted a federal standard that say a court has to find that confessions and other statements that imply guilt must be “trustworthy” for a case to move forward.

CONFESSIONS NOT ENOUGH

The finding that a crime was committed is known as corpus delicti and the law is designed to keep people from being tried and sentenced based on a confession alone.

Hagar, 63, has confessed repeatedly over the years to smothering his son, including multiple confessions on videotape with state police detectives. He has also confessed to four of his five wives – although not to Nathan Hagar’s mother – other relatives and counselors.

In Maine, as in most other states, a confession is not enough to result in a trial and sentence. The court also has to determine that a crime was committed and, because the original ruling was that Nathan Hagar died from SIDS, police had not charged Burton Hagar during the nearly 40 years that have elapsed since his son’s death.

In April, Warren held a hearing at which a Brunswick police officer testified that he found a pillow stained with mucus on one side in Nathan’s crib when he responded to the call about an unresponsive baby on May 9, 1979. The pillow was not mentioned in the officer’s 1979 report on his response to the call.

A retired state medical examiner also told Warren that she would classify the cause of death of Nathan Hagar as asphyxiation, rather than SIDS. The medical examiner didn’t perform the autopsy on Nathan Hagar, but based her testimony on records in the case.

Warren said that, in this case, a ruling that a crime was committed can’t be resolved solely by the medical evidence, Warren also noted that in his confessions, Hagar gave differing reasons for smothering his son – among them anger at the baby’s crying, an attempt to strike back at his own father for how he was raised, jealousy and feeling trapped because of the baby.

DIFFERING STANDARDS

But Warren also noted that the standard for finding that a crime has been committed is lower than for finding guilt. And he said that Brunswick Police adopted SIDS as the cause of death from the outset of their brief investigation, a suggestion that the police report wasn’t as detailed as it would have been if the cause of death was considered suspicious.

But the testimony at the April hearing that there was a pillow in the crib with mucus on the underside meets the standard of a substantial belief that Nathan Hagar was smothered, Warren said. And, although Maine doesn’t use the “trustworthy” standard, Warren ruled, Hagar’s confessions were “repeated, seemingly forthright and unequivocal statements that he smothered Nathan with a pillow” and would meet that standard.

“I am obviously disappointed that, despite the significant inconsistencies in Mr. Hagar’s statements over the years regarding the incident, that the court found the evidence reliable enough to satisfy the corpus delicti” standard, Paradie said.

A date for the next court action has not been set.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]

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