PORTLAND, Maine — Public confidence in the justice system was put on trial Tuesday, as a hearing resumed in the case of a man seeking to overturn his murder conviction after nearly three decades behind bars.
Anthony Sanborn, who was sentenced to 70 years in prison for the 1989 killing of a teenage girl, returned to a Portland court Tuesday to continue a campaign to clear his name.
Dozens of people crowded into the courtroom for the first day of the post-conviction review, which has been on pause since the spring and is scheduled to run longer than Sanborn’s original trial. The presiding judge said she hopes the hearing will bolster faith in the justice handed down in Maine courts.
“I hope this proceeding will be one in which the confidence in the justice system is underscored and sustained, and that confidence will not be lost based on what is done here,” said Justice Joyce Wheeler.
In April, Sanborn was released on bail when the sole eyewitness to the murder recanted her testimony against him, saying it was the product of coercion by police and prosecutors. That explosive hearing cast doubt on the case, and Sanborn’s lawyer said in opening statements that its continuation will show that the original investigation and trial were a “systematic obliteration” of due process.
Defense attorney Amy Fairfield told the court that the hearings will show that her client, who has long maintained his innocence, was singled out as the suspect in Portland police’s “results-oriented investigation.” The behavior of police and prosecutors during the investigation of the murder of 16-year-old Jessica Briggs undercuts the idea that the state is operating honestly, she claimed.
“They built their case block by block, puzzle piece by puzzle piece, and they made it fit,” said Fairfield. “They put on a show in front of the jury with evidence that was perjured.”
State prosecutors, who are now in the unusual position of defending the earlier conviction, emphasized in their opening statements that 12 jurors were all persuaded of Sanborn’s guilt in 1992. They dismissed the idea of a conspiracy.
It “boggles the mind” to think that police detectives would “throw out their careers” by lying on the stand and coercing witnesses, Assistant Attorney General Paul Rucha said.
Two officials also took the stand on Tuesday to deny allegations from witness Hope Cady that her original testimony had been coached and coerced by police and prosecutors.
“I’ve never seen anyone being intimidated in this case,” Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber testified. “I am absolutely not aware of any perjury.”
Neither he, former prosecutor Pamela Ames nor the two police detectives who investigated the murder pressured Cady, Macomber said.
In 2015, Cady stood by her original testimony of having witnessed the murder, according to a transcript that was read in court of an interview conducted by the Innocence Project.
Sanborn is seeking a new trial or to have his conviction vacated, but he could also be sent back to prison if the judge rules that his original conviction holds up.
Sitting in the courtroom before the hearing began, the 45-year-old fidgeted with the wrapper of a cough drop, wiped at his eyes and slightly sweating brow and sniffed. A paralegal eventually brought him a box of tissues.
To keep him out of prison, Sanborn’s legal team has a heavy burden.
The standard in a post conviction review is to show not only that new evidence might have changed the jury’s decision, but that it likely would have, Wheeler warned. The judge has not yet ruled on prosecutors’ motion to dismiss the review of Sanborn’s conviction, but said she may at some point during the hearing.
The defense will also focus on new evidence found among case files that detective James Daniels kept stored in his attic for years after Sanbon was locked away.
Fairfield has alleged that the state kept this evidence from her client’s original defense team and that it would have been important to the trial. And she asked Daniels bluntly how it had ended up in his attic when he briefly took the stand Tuesday.
His answer was that upon retirement in 1998, he had taken copies of files from many cases he’d worked on home. The Sanborn material was among eight boxes he’d thrown into his car while cleaning out his office, Daniels said.
The retired police officer and his partner in investigating the Briggs murder, Daniel Young, are expected to testify at greater length Wednesday.