LEWISTON — On Friday, Lewiston police acknowledged that three witness statements it collected in the Cleveland Cruthirds attempted murder case had been lost, and then pledged to address procedural errors.
Lewiston police Lt. Michael McGonagle said “it is inappropriate for the police and prosecution to comment on the specifics of any case while still in judicial proceedings,” but officers in his department strive “to be professional and ethical in all of our investigations, and mistakes are unacceptable.”
On Friday, attorneys representing Cruthirds learned that three witness statements — which they believe will corroborate their client’s alibi at the time Naomi Swift was stabbed — were not included in the discovery material delivered to them by Assistant District Attorney Andrew Matulis.
Justice Robert Clifford sanctioned the prosecution for the oversight and, although he didn’t believe loss of the evidence was intentional, noted in open court that the loss by Lewiston police was a “negligent act.”
Defense attorney John Paul DeGrinney was more pointed.
During a break in the proceedings, he said that losing witness statements is “outrageous. It’s outrageous.”
“Whether intentional or just flat out unprofessional, the rights of my client are being ignored and trampled on,” he said.
“It is the job of a police agency to not just convict the accused, but to safeguard the innocent,” he said.
Attorney Peter Richard Jr., who is also defending Cruthirds, suggested that the community should refer to the Lewiston Police Department’s mission statement to work with residents on the common goal of protecting life and property through a partnership of mutual trust and respect and “ask whether it is being adhered to.”
Swift was attacked on Dec. 10, 2011, and the missing witness statements were taken at Club VYBZ in the early morning hours of Dec. 11.
This is not the first time prosecutors have been sanctioned in cases investigated by the Lewiston Police Department in 2011.
That year, the felony robbery case against Frank Matott Jr. of Edgewater, Fla., was dismissed on the day he was scheduled for trial by Justice MaryGay Kennedy. She made the ruling after a Lewiston police detective told then-Assistant District Attorney Nicholas Worden that there were photographs of the crime scene he hadn’t shared with prosecutors.
In dismissing the case, the judge did so with what she called a “strong admonition to the Lewiston Police Department” for failing to provide prosecutors with every piece of evidence against Matott so that they could, in turn, provide all of the evidence to his defense attorney.
At the time, Kennedy said dismissing the case was “the only sanction the court can impose at this point because this is not the first time — it’s not only not the first time that the court has seen this; it’s not the first time this week and during this trial term.”
Police lost evidence in two unrelated robbery cases scheduled for trial that same week in August, including a case against Matott’s co-defendant, Lynne Montoya.
Days earlier, Jonathan Thibodeau of Lewiston was about to stand trial on a robbery charge when it was revealed that a videotape of his interrogation by a Lewiston police detective had been lost, according to court records.
The court later prohibited prosecutors from introducing any evidence of Thibodeau’s alleged confession on that videotape.
Police testimony offered earlier this week in the Cruthirds trial indicated that some of the department’s evidence logs in this case are incomplete, a problem also found in the Thibodeau case while tracking a backpack and clothing that had each been signed in as evidence.
Thibodeau was later convicted of robbery at the end of a two-day jury trial.
As a result of Kennedy’s dismissal of the Matott case and throwing out the confession in the Thibodeau case, District Attorney Norm Croteau met with Lewiston police Chief Michael Bussiere and others in the fall of 2011 to work on new protocols to record paperwork electronically so it can be easily found and produced on request, to make multiple copies of original evidence at the start of a case and to streamline the process of delivering evidence to the Androscoggin County district attorney’s office.
On Friday, McGonagle said, “Politics and procedures are constantly being reviewed and modified at the Lewiston Police Department.”
And, he said, “At the completion of this (Cruthirds) trial, an after-action case review will be conducted to further identify what procedural modifications, training needs and equipment upgrades may be required.”