PORTLAND, Maine — Twenty-five years after Anthony Sanborn Jr. was found guilty of murdering another teenager, he has been granted release on bail.
A Cumberland County Court judge decided Thursday to allow Sanborn to be released on a $25,000 cash or surety bond after a key witness at Sanborn’s 1992 trial recanted her earlier testimony in a packed courtroom.
Upon hearing that he could go home after decades in prison, Sanborn buried his face in his hands and cried briefly at the defense table in the courtroom. Later, leaving the courthouse in shackles he was greeted with cheers from a gathered group of supporters.
“Finally,” Sanborn said, stepping into a sheriff’s van. He was being held at Cumberland County Jail for the hearing and is expected to be released later Thursday.
On Thursday, Hope Cady told the court that, contrary to her original testimony, she did not witness the killing of 16-year old Jessica Briggs, that she had been forced into testifying by Portland police detectives and a state prosecutor, and that Sanborn deserves to go free.
Following the brutal murder on the Portland waterfront in 1989, Cady testified that Sanborn killed Briggs, whom he had dated. Cady was 13 at the time, living partially on the streets and under the supervision of a state social worker at the time. As the sole eyewitness, her testimony was key to the conviction that put Sanborn behind bars for most of the last three decades.
The fact that the state relied on the testimony of an unstable teenager appeared to deeply concern Justice Joyce Wheeler.
“This is only a bail hearing so I cannot apologize to you now,” Wheeler told Sanborn before granting bail.
Sanborn was sentenced to serve 70 years in prison for killing Briggs. During his time behind bars, Sanborn has maintained that he is innocent. And Thursday’s bail hearing is the first step in a new push to have the court vacate his indictment and conviction or get him a new trial.
The conviction, Sanborn’s lawyer Amy Fairfield claims, was a miscarriage of justice based on deeply flawed evidence. Fairfield requested Cady’s testimony, but the state Attorney General’s Office made the unusual move of requesting the bail hearing in the decades old case.
Cady told the judge on Thursday that she could barely see at the time of the 1989 murder and had been coerced into testifying by Portland police detectives James Daniels and Daniel Young.
“They basically told me what to say,” Cady said to gasps from the packed courtroom. “They were hounding me and stalking me and basically tried to put me in the middle of it … of the investigation.”
Cady said that the detectives interviewed her for hours in a small room in the Portland police station. They shouted, called her names, threatened to send her to prison, she said.
Sanborn’s claim of innocence appeared to be supported Thursday by the more than 50 people packed into the Portland courtroom for the hearing. When he entered, the crowd greeted him with applause that immediately drew a stream of tears from the 44-year-old.
The Innocence Project, a group that works to exonerate people wrongfully convicted, had a role in bringing the case back to court, Fairfield said.
During her explosive testimony, Cady said that she was legally blind at the time of the murder and could barely see the lawyer standing about seven feet from her in the Portland courtroom.
Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber cross examined Cady for less than five minutes, and said that they had spoken at the time of Sanborn’s trial.
Macomber submitted sworn affidavits from the two detectives denying the accusations against them, which were presented in early court filings by Sanborn’s lawyer. But he was not prepared to call witnesses on Thursday.
Macomber also told the judge that he would need to recuse himself from the case, because he may need to be called as a witness to testify about Cady’s recanted testimony. The hearing is scheduled to continue on April 25 and 26.
When Macomber asked the judge to send Sanborn back to prison while the state readies its witnesses, Fairfield forcefully objected, saying that her client has already served far too much time for a crime he didn’t commit.
“To keep this man in prison for one second longer just perpetuates the gross miscarriage of justice that has been done to this tremendous human being,” she said. “This stops now.”
The court also heard testimony from Margaret Bragdon, a former caseworker for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services who serves a Cady’s guardian in the lead up to Sanborn’s trial. Bragdon kept extensive notes on her professional interactions with Cady, who she said lived a scattered and inconsistent life as a troubled youth in Portland.
The notes recount Cady giving inconsistent accounts of what happened when Briggs was murdered and saying that the detectives and prosecutor intimidated her and told her what to say in testimony, according to Bragdon. The retired caseworker testified that she has come to believe that Cady didn’t witness the murder, but claimed to in part to have a “war story” that she could tell other kids living on the streets.
In addition to the $25,000 bond, Sanborn was granted bail on the condition that he not have any contact with Briggs’ family, stay in Maine, and check in weekly with police in Westbrook, where he will be living.
Following the news that her husband would be able to come home, Michelle Sanborn wept outside the Portland courthouse.
“I just want to thank Justice Wheeler for being a woman of compassion and for doing the right thing, and giving me faith in our system again,” she said. “I just want all our lives back.”
Michelle Sanborn said that she has forgiven the detectives who investigated Briggs’ murder, but wants the Portland Police Department to admit wrongdoing and apologize.
Macomber, of the Attorney General’s Office, advised judge Wheeler that the full story had not been presented Thursday. He said that the detectives and former Assistant Attorney General Pamela Ames, who originally prosecuted Sanborn’s case, may testify later in the month.
Wheeler, however, seemed to take Cady’s recitation as a potentially devastating blow to the state’s case against Sanborn.
“Hope Cady is that state’s case,” the judge said.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated where Sanborn was released from. It was an editing error.