Anthony Sanborn has been freed, but in the eyes of the law, he’s still a convicted murderer.

The deal reached Wednesday to free Sanborn, after he served 27 years for the murder of a 16-year-old girl on the Portland waterfront in 1989, will get him out of prison but changes little else about the legal case.

“He can say what he wants, but the court record will say that he was convicted of murder and he served a 27-year sentence,” two years more than the state’s mandatory minimum for murder, said Jim Burke, a clinical professor of law at the University of Maine School of Law. Sanborn’s original sentence was for 70 years.

Sanborn’s attorneys have argued that he is actually innocent, and that police and prosecutors secured his conviction through deceit, coercion and threats against witnesses, and that authorities withheld evidence that would have been helpful to Sanborn’s defense.

Both Burke and Tina Heather Nadeau, a prominent criminal defense attorney, said there was no guarantee how the review would have gone had the process continued. Justice Joyce Wheeler could have overturned Sanborn’s conviction, ordered a new trial or left the conviction and sentence intact. Or she could have left the conviction in place but modified the sentence – which she did in accepting the deal prosecutors and Sanborn’s lawyers worked out Wednesday.

Burke said the resolution was unexpected, especially since Sanborn has maintained his innocence since he was accused of the grisly stabbing.

“But what isn’t unusual in this case?” Burke said. “I understand what was done because it gets him out, but I’ve never seen this happen before. I’ve never seen a case like Sanborn’s before.”

Wheeler freed Sanborn on bail in April, after the only eyewitness to the slaying testified that she didn’t actually see the murder, and Sanborn’s attorneys argued that her vision was so poor she couldn’t have seen what she testified to at the original trial in 1992.

Wheeler agreed to preside over a post-conviction review, which has featured a painstaking review of detectives’ and prosecutor’s notes and evidence in the case, as Sanborn’s lawyers have tried to prove that police focused too quickly on their client as a suspect, and pressured witnesses to provide the evidence they wanted to get before jurors. State prosecutors defended the investigation and prosecution of the case, and sought to preserve the verdict and sentence.

Nadeau said Sanborn can continue to say he’s not guilty of the crime, although his ability to prove that in court is likely extinguished by the deal reached Wednesday.

“You have to accept responsibility to a certain sense in a court of law, but whether that carries over to real life is another thing,” Nadeau said.

She said many other criminal lawyers in the state have been cheering on Sanborn’s chief lawyers, Amy Fairfield and Timothy Zerillo, because they know how difficult getting a post-conviction review can be, let alone winning one.

“I think the entire criminal defense community is incredibly proud of them and happy that everyone was able to reach a resolution,” said James Drake, president-elect of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

The review process is daunting, Nadeau said, dealing with evidence that dates back three decades and trying to get witnesses to recall conversations and actions long after they occurred.

“You’re sifting through 30 years of legal archaeological evidence,” she said.

It was likely “incredibly draining” for the lawyers, Nadeau said, and for Sanborn, knowing that what was presented in the review could determine whether he would be returned to prison for decades.

Almost any outcome would have led to a year or more of additional legal wrangling, she said, whether it was a new trial or appeals of Wheeler’s decision, whatever it might have been, by either the defense or the prosecution.

Nadeau said that possibility makes it easy for lawyers to understand accepting a deal that frees a client, even if it leaves a conviction on the books.

“I don’t think it’s a perfect result,” she said. “But from Tony’s perspective, he’s a free man.”

Burke concurred.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “There are so many uncertainties. I think this is an elegant solution.”

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

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Correction: This story was updated at 9:13 a.m. on November 9, 2017 to corrected the first name of Timothy Zerillo.