Anthony Sanborn Jr. can recall the moment 25 years ago when he first felt the full weight of his situation, and it came with a single word: guilty.

“I didn’t even think they said guilty,” said Sanborn, now 44. “I looked back at some of the people I knew that was in the crowd. It was like, (what) the heck’s going on?”

In the same courtroom where he heard the jury’s fateful verdict in the 1989 slaying of Jessica L. Briggs, Sanborn and scores of his supporters wept and celebrated Thursday when a Cumberland County judge freed him on bail.

New evidence unearthed by his defense attorneys cast serious doubt on the state’s case, which hung largely on a witness who on Thursday recanted the eyewitness testimony that sent Sanborn to prison for a quarter century.

In his first extensive interview since walking out of the Cumberland County Jail, Sanborn reflected on what it felt like to be convicted of a murder he says that he never committed, and how he plans to move forward with his life outside of prison.

Anthony Sanborn talks with his stepdaughter, Cassie Thanephonesy, as he eats his first meal outside prison – an Italian sandwich – while his wife, Michelle Sanborn, takes a photo. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Sanborn was just 16 when police say he killed Briggs, also 16, a former girlfriend. Her body was found in Casco Bay, and police believed she was slashed and stabbed to death on the Maine State Pier.

Even after his arrest and waiting three years in jail for trial, Sanborn said he believed that the justice system would redeem him.

“Back then I had faith in everybody,” Sanborn said. “I thought there was no way the justice system could fail me, so there was no way I was going to be found guilty of a murder I didn’t do. At some point it got real. All these guys either really think I did this, or are really trying to set me up and accuse me of it.”

Sanborn said he recalls that after he heard the verdict, he called his mother – he didn’t want her to hear it first on the news.

“She said, ‘It’s all right, we’ll call the courts, we’ll get it straightened out in the morning,’ ” Sanborn said. “I said, ‘Mom, it’s not ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ it doesn’t work that way. But I still thought it would be fixed in months, or a year, two at the most, and everything would be all right. And year after year, I sit there and nothing happened.”

During the early part of his sentence, Sanborn said he closed himself off from the world.

He didn’t watch the news or want to know what was going on beyond the prison walls. That world was not his, he said.

Sanborn, who speaks in a soft, raspy voice but now freely shows his sly, wicked sense of humor, said for years he shut down emotionally. Prison taught him not to look anyone in the eye. Any tender human contact was a shock.

Anthony Sanborn sits on the couch at the home of his friend Lisa Alexander with his wife, Michelle Sanborn, left, and his daughter, Santana Levier, about an hour after leaving the Cumberland County Jail. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“It was a bleak time,” he said. “Anything could have happened during that time. I was dead. There was no doubt about it. And there’s a lot of people in there that are that way.”

After about 2006 when he began to reconnect with a childhood friend, Michelle Lincoln, Sanborn said he seemed to come back to life.

At first during visits, Sanborn would keep his eyes down. He would fiddle with a ring on his finger, twisting it over and over.

“She said one day, ‘You can look at me,’ ” Sanborn said. “I said, ‘I don’t want you to think I’m, like, checking you out,’ and she said, ‘I’m yours. You can do it.’ She says she touched my face and I shuddered.”

Lincoln married Sanborn in February 2012.

In the past year, as his case for post-conviction review progressed, Sanborn said he began to revert to some of the wariness and fear that he felt when he was first locked up.

The prospect of anyone other than his family, let alone a court, believing in his case for innocence seemed a distant fantasy. As Michelle built up their hopes, he wanted to tear them back down.

“I said it’s not happening, it’s never going to happen, stop saying people care, they don’t care,” Sanborn said.

He said he knew Thursday’s hearing would draw a crowd, but he was shocked when he walked into a courtroom so packed that people lined the walls. His supporters applauded. Sanborn burst into tears.

Later, while waiting to be released from the Cumberland County Jail, it took hours for his approaching freedom to become real to him. He lay down to rest and to pray:

“God, if this ain’t real, then take me now. Because if this ain’t real, what just happened today, just take me.”

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

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