PORTLAND, Maine — A judge has ordered a local TV station and Maine’s public broadcaster to send raw recordings from recent interviews with a former prosecutor to the lawyer for a man seeking to overturn a decades old murder conviction.
On Friday, Justice Joyce Wheeler ordered WGME-TV and Maine Public to turn over all materials from their April interviews with former Assistant Attorney General Pamela Ames, saying that the recordings would be of “significant utility” to Anthony Sanborn’s effort to clear himself of the 1989 murder of Jessica Briggs. Ames prosecuted Sanborn at his 1992 trial.
The order follows Wheeler’s confidential review of the reporting material last week, and comes as the latest development in an explosive case that has raised the concern that an innocent man may have been locked away for nearly three decades.
Wheeler ruled that Sanborn’s rights as someone accused of a crime outweigh First Amendment protections claimed by the media outlets, which had argued that turning over the recordings would have a “chilling effect” on Maine’s free press. Further, because Sanborn’s case casts doubt on the criminal justice process any insight into how the state originally built its case against him is vital, the judge reasoned in her order.
“How law enforcement put together the case against Sanborn is a matter of grave public concern striking at the heart of public confidence and trust in the power of the state,” Wheeler wrote.
In April, the key witness in Sanborn’s trial recanted testimony that she had seen Briggs’ murder. Hope Cady told a shocked courtroom that she had not witnessed the slaying, had been legally blind at the time, and had been bullied into testifying by Ames and two Portland police detectives.
Ames, now a lawyer in private practice, and the detectives have denied this allegation. But based on Cady’s recantation Wheeler released Sanborn on bail, pending a future hearing that is scheduled to begin on July 24.
Amy Fairfield, Sanborn’s defense attorney, issued subpoenas for the outtakes from the two broadcasters interviews with Ames after they had aired segments in which the former prosecutor said she was “ absolutely” convinced of Sanborn’s guilt and “ c ompletely aghast” that he had been released on bail in April.
In a early May filing with the Cumberland County Unified Criminal Court, Fairfield argued that the recordings of Ames should be turned over because they dealt with “substantive evidentiary issues” in Sanborn’s case. But WGME and Maine Public resisted saying in a counter motion that they had aired the newsworthy segments of the interviews and that turning over the raw footage was gratuitous because Ames has agreed to testify in future hearings on Sanborn’s case.
In ruling that the recordings be released, Wheeler wrote that Ames appears “predictably hostile” in the outtakes and that “any subtle nuance” revealed by her words or demeanor might be important when she testifies.
Wheeler ordered WGME and Maine Public to send the recordings to Fairfield and lawyers for the state, but wrote that “the attorneys shall not distribute these outtakes and they shall be used solely for the purpose of the hearing,” seemingly indicating that they will not be made public as part of the court filings.
Maine Public is disappointed by the decision and considering whether to appeal it, according to Benjamin Piper, a lawyer with Preti Flaherty who is representing the two broadcasters.
Piper said he has not yet had the chance to talk with WGME about the order, which a court clerk said was sent to the parties Tuesday morning. Fairfield did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
The BDN has content sharing agreements with Maine Public and WGME.