Attorneys for two Biddeford men charged with attempted murder for a brutal 2011 attack on a local man are accusing prosecutors of deliberately withholding key evidence.
Just days before Tamer Tilahun, 23, and Jonathan Dowd, 22, were due to stand trial in November in York County Superior Court, their attorneys discovered they were never given audio recordings of witness interviews, including one in which the victim’s girlfriend described yelling out racial insults at Tilahun, who is African-American, a short time before the attack.
The attorneys allege that the victim may have been the aggressor in the incident.
The revelation caused the scheduled Nov. 18 trial to be postponed. Tilahun and Dowd, who had been jailed for two years awaiting trial, were released and their bail reduced from $50,000 cash to zero.
Their attorneys, Amy Fairfield and Peter Cyr, argued on Tuesday before Justice Thomas Warren in Cumberland County Unified Criminal Court that the York County District Attorney’s Office had acted “maliciously” or “deliberately” by withholding the audio recordings. They are seeking to have the cases against their clients dismissed.
“Once you add these three audiotapes into the mix, you have a different case, judge,” Fairfield said to Warren. “The question then is, what else was withheld?”
The lead investigator in the case, Saco police Sgt. Corey Huntress, testified Tuesday that he mistakenly thought he had shared the audio recordings with the DA’s office long before November. “My total error,” he said.
The DA’s office didn’t hand over the recordings to the defense until Nov. 6, less than two weeks before the scheduled start of the trial, according to Cyr and Fairfield.
Tilahun and Dowd have each pleaded not guilty to five charges for the fight that hospitalized Derrick Connors of Biddeford. The charges are attempted murder, elevated aggravated assault, two counts of criminal threatening with a weapon, and one count of committing a bail violation.
The fight started on the Elm Street bridge, which links Saco and Biddeford, around 1 a.m. on Nov. 21, 2011, an hour or more after the racially charged exchange between Connors’ friends and Tilahun and Down, according to Huntress’ testimony and the recordings played in court Tuesday.
Tilahun and Dowd are accused of stabbing Connors, now 29, on the bridge and then fighting him again on the Biddeford side of the bridge. The exchange ended with either Tilahun or Dowd bashing Connors in the face with a brick. Different witnesses gave differing accounts of who used the knife, who wielded the brick and who initiated the fights.
Defense attorneys say prosecutors and police failed to disclose the heated exchange between the two sides leading up the fight.
“The issue in this case is who is the aggressor,” Cyr said.
Connors’ girlfriend, Sally Hansen, told police in the newly released audio recording that Connors had been drinking coffee brandy while they were visiting Savannah Barnes’ second-story apartment in Saco when he accidentally knocked out a window screen. Tilahun and Dowd were on the street below and crushed the screen, prompting Barnes to demand repayment.
While Tilahun and Dowd were in Barnes’ apartment paying her for the damage to the screen, Connors swore at them at least twice. Connors, Hansen and Barnes then followed them out of the apartment, where Hansen and Barnes shouted racial insults loud enough for the two men to hear, according to the audio recording played in court.
“(Barnes) was saying what a scumbag that black kid has always been,” Hansen said on the recording.
Hansen added that she yelled at Tilahun, calling him a “dirty (racial slur).”
“I don’t like black people, OK?” Hansen told Huntress in the recording.
Connors told police in other recordings played in court Tuesday that he encountered Tilahun and Dowd again during the early hours of Nov. 21, 2011, while walking home from a bar in Saco. According to Connors, the pair immediately charged to attack him. Other witnesses have said they tried to restrain Connors from chasing the men off the bridge.
The judge made no immediate ruling and scheduled testimony to resume next week, when Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan will be allowed to question witnesses.
“I agree there was a discovery violation. I think that’s a given. The question is whether it was malicious or deliberate,” Warren said.
Scott Dolan can be reached at 791-6304 or at: