PORTLAND — A Jay man’s appeal of his murder conviction and sentence was heard Wednesday by Maine’s highest court.

James Sweeney enters Franklin County Superior Court in Farmington for his sentencing on a murder conviction April 10, 2019. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file photo

After a five-day bench trial in January, a Franklin County Superior Court Judge found James E. “Ted” Sweeney, 59, guilty of killing his former girlfriend.

Prosecutors said Sweeney bludgeoned to death Wendy Douglass, 51, with whom he’d had a relationship and continued to live in her home in a separate bedroom after she’d broken up with him. Sweeney hit Douglass at least three times in the head with a bat at about 5:30 a.m. while she slept in her bed at her house at 5 Jewell St. in Jay, according to prosecutors.

Sweeney, who is deaf, turned himself in to the Androscoggin County Jail in Auburn on July 11, 2017. He had written a note that stated he hurt Douglass and that police needed to check on her. When Jay police arrived at the house, they found Douglass was deceased.

Sweeney pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

He was found guilty by Justice William Stokes and sentenced to 38 years in prison.

Arguments on Wednesday before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court centered largely on a sentencing protocol used by trial courts for felony convictions known as the Hewey analysis.

Defense attorney Jeremy Pratt said Justice Stokes mistakenly used the same factor in the first two stages of Sweeney’s sentence against the defendant, resulting in a longer sentence than it should be.

“It is unfair and overly punitive,” Pratt told the seven justices of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, sitting as the law court. “This practice should end immediately.”

Pratt didn’t argue that Sweeney’s sentence was too high; sentences for murder in Maine range from 25 years to life.

“What I’m saying is the trial court made an error by including the incidence of domestic violence in both step one and step two of the Hewey analysis,” Pratt said.

Justices pushed back, asking why Pratt is questioning the judge’s analysis if Pratt isn’t taking issue with the overall sentence imposed.

Pratt explained that a murder sentence of 38 years in not too high in general, but the way Stokes reached that sentence was problematic.

“I don’t really care if the court finds it should be in step one or step two,” adding he would prefer that the judge only consider the domestic violence factor in the second step of his sentencing analysis.

“My point is that it should not be double counted in two different places,” Pratt said.

Justice Andrew Mead suggested the trial judge had drawn a distinction between the way he considered the element of domestic violence in the first phase of the Hewey analysis, which is when the judge arrives at a basic sentence for the nature and seriousness, and the second phase, when mitigating factors that relate to the characteristics of the individual offender are considered to lower the sentence and aggravating factors are considered to raise the sentence.

“Aren’t they qualitatively different?” Mead asked.

Stokes said at sentencing, “I don’t know where you evaluate it and I don’t want to double count it but I think you have to,” Pratt said.

Sweeney’s history of domestic violence and the impact of Dougless’ death on her family added three years to his base sentence of 35 years.

Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin defended the trial judge’s actions during sentencing, arguing he correctly defined the crime as a domestic violence homicide in step one of the analysis and considered Sweeney’s history of domestic violence as related by the victim and other witnesses in the second step.

Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley asked whether the trial courts’ use of the Hewey analysis should be re-examined.

“We have this conversation on a regular basis about where a particular fact or circumstance regarding sentencing belongs in the analysis,” she said. “Are we using the wrong analysis to create sentencing in Maine?”

Pratt also argued that statements made by Sweeney to psychologists who testified for the state and the defense should be considered by the judge during trial.

Robbin said Sweeney could have made those statements directly to the judge by testifying at trial.

The high court is not expected to rule immediately on the case.

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