It was “only a bail hearing,” a judge said Thursday, before letting Anthony Sanborn go home to his family.
But she might as well have set off a bomb in the Cumberland County Courthouse, as shock waves of her decision reverberated across the state.
For the first time, someone convicted of murder in Maine is on his way to be exonerated. Justice Joyce Wheeler didn’t just take a step toward undoing a horrible miscarriage of justice for one man, her decision has implications for police, prosecutors, the media and every member of the public who has had confidence in the criminal justice system.
Sanborn was convicted 25 years ago of the brutal murder of Jessica Briggs and sentenced to spend what would likely be the rest of his life in prison. But because of dogged work by his wife and a court-appointed lawyer, the state’s case was blown to bits, leading Wheeler to deliver one of the judicial understatements of all time:
“This is only a bail hearing,” she said to Sanborn. “So I cannot apologize to you.”
It’s not an exoneration – yet. But it’s hard to see how Sanborn’s conviction can stand now.
Wheeler was presented with evidence suggesting that police and prosecutors withheld information from the defense that would have helped Sanborn, including the fact that a crucial eyewitness was legally blind.
And when that same witness took the stand in Wheeler’s courtroom Thursday, Hope Cady said that not only was her vision too limited to see what she told the jury she had seen, but that she was not even in the place she testified to being on the night of the murder. She lied, she says now, because detectives threatened to send her to a juvenile corrections facility.
She was only 13 the night Briggs was killed and Cady was questioned by detectives with no lawyer or parent present.
After hearing the testimony, Wheeler ruled that there was a “reasonable likelihood” that Sanborn would successfully overturn his conviction. A conviction in a new trial seems out of reach.
There has never been any physical evidence tying Sanborn to the crime and with no eyewitness the state could call, its case becomes all but unwinnable.
There is still legal process that needs to play out to determine whether it was willful misconduct, excessive but well-intentioned zeal or something else that led the state to prosecute the case the way they did, but there are lessons already available to anyone who wants to accept them.
First, it’s a very good thing that Maine does not have the death penalty. Sanborn was 20 years old when he was handed a 70-year sentence. It would likely have been the rest of his life if he had not found a lawyer in Amy Fairfield who was willing to fight for him. But had he been sentenced to death in 1992, none of the problems with his case would have come to light.
The second lesson is about the unreliability of memory. When witnesses are asked to reconstruct what they saw months or years after the fact, their recollection can change, especially if they are intimidated by the questioner or they are just trying to please them.
And it’s important to note how social status colors the way we view events. Sanborn and Briggs were both 16 the night she was killed, and part of a culture of street kids who moved from apartment to apartment, committing petty crimes and only drawing attention when they became a nuisance.
Sanborn’s arrest and conviction were not big news, and when he was sent off to prison, he was largely forgotten by everyone who was not a friend or family member. The defendant, the victim and witnesses were “throw-away kids” in many people’s minds. The community needs to ask itself if it was too quick to accept the official story, and if it’s too quick to throw away others, too.
Now the challenge will be for Sanborn, who at age 44 has to try to build a life that is not consumed with bitterness after spending 25 years in prison.
No judge can ever give him back what he lost. Still, his joy Thursday about what lies ahead was palpable.
When asked if he wanted to say anything in court, he delivered the second greatest understatement of the day.
“No,” he said. “I’m good.”