Anthony Sanborn wipes his eyes as the details of his agreement with the state are announced in court Wednesday. The deal was reached after nearly five weeks of a post-conviction review in which his attorneys questioned the integrity of the police investigation in the murder of Jessica Briggs, and some witnesses recanted. At right is his attorney Amy Fairfield. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

A sudden compromise reached after almost five weeks of hearings means convicted murderer Anthony H. Sanborn Jr. will go free, after spending 27 years in prison for the 1989 murder of 16-year-old Jessica Briggs.

Prosecutors and attorneys for Sanborn struck a deal Wednesday that will keep him out of prison but preserves his murder conviction.

The deal began to come together Tuesday night, hours after the state’s key eyewitness confirmed her recantation of testimony before a jury in his 1992 trial that helped secure his conviction, said Amy Fairfield, an attorney for Sanborn.

Sanborn’s attorneys have argued that he is innocent, 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.

Under the deal, Sanborn agreed to withdraw his petition for post-conviction review. In exchange, he and his attorneys submitted new court papers with a single argument: Sanborn’s 70-year sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment, in line with a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions handed down in the years since Sanborn was sentenced in 1993. Those rulings mandated that juveniles convicted of murder be sentenced differently than adults.

Sanborn was 16 when Briggs, his one-time girlfriend, also 16, was stabbed and slashed to death and her body dumped into Portland Harbor.

Under the deal, Sanborn agreed to time served – the equivalent of 42 years, 3 months and 9 days when prison good-conduct credit is factored in. He has been behind bars since his arrest in 1990, and was serving a 70-year sentence at the Maine State Prison.

Although his conviction will stand, Sanborn, 45, is free and the bail conditions he has lived under since he was released April 13 will be lifted.

“I respect what Justice (Joyce) Wheeler did for me” in allowing a review of his case, Sanborn said in a statement read by one of his attorneys after the hearing concluded. “I think Justice Wheeler has a lot of courage and integrity to do what she did. There is only one judge who can ultimately judge me, and that is God. And I will be judged to be innocent when my time comes.”

Standing between his attorneys Timothy Zerillo and Amy Fairfield, Anthony Sanborn is overcome with emotion while addressing Justice Joyce Wheeler at the Cumberland County Courthouse on Wednesday after being freed. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Fairfield, who has championed Sanborn’s case since her law firm began representing him in 2016, fought back tears as she addressed the court, and said everyone was “war-torn and weary” after nearly five months of hard-fought litigation.

After the hearing, Fairfield and co-counsel Timothy Zerillo said the outcome was not ideal. They continue to believe in Sanborn’s innocence, and the offer from the state hit them like a “crow bar to the head,” Zerillo said.

“Any offers that we talked about before always had him … acknowledging some level of culpability, and he would never do that,” Zerillo said. “This was one of the first times where we could structure something so he could maintain his innocence, as he does.”

PROSECUTOR DEFENDS 1992 VERDICT

Assistant Attorney General Meg Elam, who prosecuted the case, also read a statement after the hearing and took only two brief questions from the media. She said Sanborn was then and is still a convicted murderer, and that her office never wavered from its commitment to uphold that verdict.

She also said the offer that was signed Wednesday had been on the table for months.

Susan Briggs, stepmother of murder victim Jessica L. Briggs, speaks to reporters outside the Cumberland County Courthouse after Anthony Sanborn Jr.’s 70-year sentence was vacated. “I never doubted he did it,” she said of his conviction. “I’m glad the conviction stands.” Staff photo by Ben McCanna

“While the state has indicated its willingness to modify Mr. Sanborn’s sentence and conveyed that to Mr. Sanborn’s lawyers for months, we have always maintained and continue to maintain that Mr. Sanborn’s conviction for the murder of Jessica Briggs was a just and fair verdict,” Elam said outside the courthouse. “We believe that today’s resolution of this matter is a just outcome for all involved, but most importantly for Jessica Briggs and for her family.”

The conclusion means Wheeler will not weigh in on whether Sanborn’s trial was fair, or whether police and prosecutors violated rules designed to protect a defendant’s constitutional rights to due process and a fair trial.

“I understand you’ve lost your faith in the justice system, and my only goal is to make sure justice is done, and to make sure everyone gets a fair hearing, a fair trial,” Wheeler told Sanborn. “I hope you leave here with that conviction today.”

Sanborn then spoke briefly, thanking the judge for her integrity and for deciding to free him on bail in April.

Susan Briggs, Jessica Briggs’ stepmother, sat in the front row of Courtroom 8 every day of the hearings and spoke briefly to reporters afterward.

“We never doubted he did it,” she said. “I’m glad the conviction stands. He walked away. That may not have been our ultimate goal, but he’s still convicted of killing our daughter.”

QUESTIONING CONDUCT OF POLICE

The original case against Sanborn was circumstantial: No physical evidence tied him to the crime, and most of the witnesses in the case were teenagers who lived a rough life on Portland’s streets, moving from apartment to apartment, partying and avoiding the police.

Sanborn has maintained his innocence since his arrest. His case was revived in 2016 by Fairfield, who began to review how Portland police detectives collected their evidence against Sanborn.

Sanborn contended that the detectives systematically omitted information beneficial to his case when they compiled official documents that were turned over to prosecutors and given to his defense counsel.

This is known as Brady material, named for the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case in which the justices found that all information deemed to be both material and exculpatory must be turned over during the discovery process, when the attorneys for the state hand over to defense lawyers all of the evidence and information collected by police on which the criminal charges are based. A similar case decided soon after Brady found that information that could be use to undermine, or impeach, the credibility of a witness must also be turned over.

Anthony H. Sanborn Jr. walks out of court a free man after Wednesday’s proceedings. In a statement read later by one of his attorneys, he said, “I think Justice Wheeler has a lot of courage and integrity to do what she did. There is only one judge who can ultimately judge me, and that is God. And I will be judged to be innocent when my time comes.” Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Sanborn’s conviction was based largely on three witnesses. One was a teenager named Glenn Brown, who said he saw Sanborn the night before Briggs was killed, that Sanborn was looking for her, had a knife and was upset with her.

The second witness was Gerard Rossi, a Vietnam War veteran then in his 40s who befriended Sanborn and lived with the teenager for a time. Rossi told jurors in 1992 that Sanborn confessed three times, in increasing detail, to killing Briggs.

STRATEGY OF SANBORN ATTORNEYS

The third was Hope Cady, who was 13 at the time Briggs was murdered, and was among the group of street kids who fled their impoverished, sometimes abusive homes to live on their own. Cady said she saw Sanborn and a group of others, including the woman who is now Sanborn’s wife, surround Briggs before Sanborn stabbed her to death.

Cady did not come forward with her information until after the murder and Sanborn’s arrest, but in time for her to testify at his 1992 trial.

Sanborn’s attorneys sought to undercut each witness, and cast doubt on the police work of lead detective James Daniels and his partner, Daniel Young.

During the hearings, Brown said he lied under oath, and insinuated that police forged his signature in a police report.

Regarding Rossi, who has since died, Sanborn’s attorneys sought to show that police gave Rossi a silent deal in which they would back off charging him with sexual assault and rape of multiple underage girls in exchange for his damning testimony against Sanborn at trial.

Cady testified Tuesday, and confirmed her recantation that she was not on the pier when Briggs was murdered, that she lied to investigators and was scared they would jail her.

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

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