Inspired by death of Joyce McLain, Medway lawmaker to submit ‘cold case’ bill to address unsolved homicides

Posted Sept. 05, 2013, at 4:29 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 06, 2013, at 7:30 a.m.
Rep. Stephen Stanley, D-Medway
State of Maine photo
Rep. Stephen Stanley, D-Medway
A file photo of Joyce McLain, a teenage homicide victim. Her body was found on a power-line clearing located behind Schenck High School, in East Millinocket, where she had gone jogging Aug. 10, 1980.
Photo courtesy of Pam McLain
A file photo of Joyce McLain, a teenage homicide victim. Her body was found on a power-line clearing located behind Schenck High School, in East Millinocket, where she had gone jogging Aug. 10, 1980.

EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — Spurred by a 33-year-old unsolved homicide, Rep. Steve Stanley, D-Medway, plans to submit a bill authorizing Maine’s attorney general to reassign cold cases from originating law enforcement agencies to others who might solve them, he said.

The bill’s language hasn’t been written yet, but a title for it — a statement of intent from which legislative assistants will draft a tentative bill and research its validity — was submitted to the state Legislature’s Revisor’s Office last week, Stanley said.

“The intent of it is so that people in cold cases can use other agencies to maybe solve the case instead of waiting 30 to 35 years,” Stanley said Wednesday. “I have talked to a person working for Pam [McLain], and that is what they want.”

Pamela McLain is the mother of Joyce McLain, a 16-year-old sophomore at Schenck High School in East Millinocket killed sometime during or after the night of Aug. 8, 1980. She was last seen jogging in her neighborhood.

About 35 hours passed, along with a rainstorm, before a searcher found her body in a clearing near electrical lines close to the school’s athletic fields. Her head and neck had been struck with a blunt object.

The homicide drew national attention on the syndicated television show “Unsolved Mysteries” in 1989, and in People magazine, which in April 2009 featured the discovery of forensic evidence found during an exhumation in 2008.

But the case, which one state police detective said had “ a good dozen or so” suspects in 2005, remains unsolved. State police have declined to discuss in specific detail exactly how far their efforts have reached, but they have included the exhumation, interstate trips and occasional sweeps through the Katahdin region, including door-to-door interviews and new interviews with case witnesses.

One of the ideas behind the proposal, Pamela McLain said Thursday, is to allow state police only five years’ control of an unsolved case. After that, families of the victims in the unsolved homicides “will have a say on who else can work on them.”

That way, “we don’t have to wait forever and ever with no hope, and beg to be heard and helped, or to be able to seek the help of others, and not to always be denied,” she said in a statement.

McLain doesn’t want people in her position “to be begging the public for support to get things done with our loved ones’ unsolved cases.”

The title of the bill was not available on Thursday.

As of Thursday, Maine has 68 unsolved homicides listed on the Web page dedicated to cold cases at maine.gov. The state averages 20 to 25 homicides annually, and state police boast a case-clearance rate on homicides of more than 90 percent. The coldest cases date back about 40 years.

A Portland-based defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor, Jay P. McCloskey, expressed doubts that Stanley’s proposal would be workable because Maine State Police are the state’s primary homicide investigators. Bangor and Portland police are also accredited, officials said.

“Who would he refer [cold cases] to? The Environmental Protection Agency? I don’t get it,” McCloskey said Thursday. “You could obviously do it, but nobody would take the cases on.”

“The state can’t direct the FBI to do an investigation. That would not work,” he added. “The state police can request the FBI to come in and take a look, but if it [a cold case] doesn’t have some federal connection, you could ask them all you want and they won’t do it.”

Maine Deputy Attorney General William Stokes dismissed Stanley’s proposal as impracticable and unnecessary.

“The cases are unsolved because they are difficult to solve and that bill will not change that,” Stokes said Thursday. “We are free to seek out as many other agencies we want [for assistance] and we do all the time.

“Are there unsolved cases? Yes. Crime happens in ways that are never intended to be solved,” Stokes added. “I understand the frustration. I sympathize with it, but I think this bill will cause a raft of problems and I think it is unfair to target Maine State Police like this.”

A spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine said that at first glance, the organization saw no problems with Stanley’s proposal but would want to see the final bill before deciding whether to support it.

“Anytime a case is transferred, we want to ensure that due process is followed,” said Rachel Healy, director of communications for the organization.

Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, declined to comment on the proposed legislation on Thursday.

The McLain homicide case remains open and active, he said.

McLain stayed silent, at least publicly, on her daughter’s death until 2005. She has since been relentless in pursuit of the case’s closure with Justice for Joyce, the name of a citizens group she helped form. McLain and other group members have occasionally questioned state police’s handling of the case, and they were somewhat rewarded for their efforts by the success of the exhumation, which state police had initially declined to do.

Justice for Joyce raised money to pay for two nationally-known forensic experts to exhume the body, at McLain’s request.

Most recently, McLain has pushed for the FBI to partner with state police in handling the case, but an FBI spokesman said the case doesn’t fit the agency’s criteria. State police and the FBI have consulted and shared resources several times on the case, state police and the FBI have said.

U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe wrote a letter in 2012 seeking FBI intervention in the case, at McLain’s request.

McCloskey expressed empathy for McLain’s plight, but said he believed that the best thing she can do now is raise money for a reward for information that leads to an arrest or conviction in the case.

“There are always those cases, unfortunately, that are never solved. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” McCloskey said. “A more effective approach would be to appropriate more money to the case. That is more likely to be effective.”

The homicide, residents have said, cast a pall over East Millinocket that is still felt.

Joyce McLain would have turned 50 on Wednesday, her mother said.

 

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