October 17, 2013

Lewiston arson case confession tossed out

A judge says police took too long to inform the suspect of his rights in the case of one of the city’s three major fires.

By Scott Dolan sdolan@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A judge has thrown out a confession by the boy accused of setting the first of three major fires in downtown Lewiston last spring, ruling that police failed to read him his rights until an hour and 45 minutes into an interrogation.

click image to enlarge

Firefighters battle a blaze that heavily damaged three apartment buildings in downtown Lewiston on April 29 . The confession of the boy charged with starting the fire has been thrown out by a judge.

AP Photo/Sun Journal, Amber Waterman

The confession by Brody Covey, first to a Lewiston detective and then to his mother on a video recorded at the police station, was the key evidence that prosecutors had against him in the blaze that destroyed three apartment buildings on April 29. Covey was 12 at the time.

Wednesday’s ruling is the second major blow to law enforcement’s attempts to hold four arson suspects responsible for the three massive fires over eight days that shook downtown Lewiston. One of the two men charged with setting a fire on May 6 that destroyed two buildings was deemed incompetent to stand trial because of an intellectual disability, in a ruling by a different judge.

The three fires destroyed nine buildings in all and displaced nearly 200 residents, most of whom were living in poverty and some who came to this country as refugees from war-torn African nations. It took government agencies, volunteers and social workers more than two months to find homes for all of them.

All that’s left where the buildings burned are leveled, vacant lots that Lewiston officials have said will likely stay empty for years.

Judge Rick Lawrence ruled in Covey’s case months after Covey’s attorney, Allan Lobozzo, argued in Lewiston District Court to have the boy’s statements suppressed as legal evidence because police had not read him his constitutionally required Miranda rights – that he didn’t have to talk and was entitled to a lawyer.

When police brought Covey to the police station to be interviewed on May 2, he was initially considered a witness, not a suspect. The video of the interview, played in court in July, shows Detective Robert Morin making an abrupt shift in his questioning more than eight minutes into the recording, pausing before asking Covey pointedly, “Did you set it?”

Lawrence’s 10-page ruling says Covey’s confession is inadmissible because of the Miranda issue. The judge then ruled that Covey’s confession to his mother, Jessica Reilly, in the same police interrogation room is inadmissible as “fruit of the poisonous tree,” statements that were voluntary but wouldn’t have been made if police hadn’t committed the constitutional violation.

Lobozzo called the ruling a “wholehearted victory from a legal standpoint,” but it leaves unclear what will happen next to Covey, who is now 13 and in state custody in an undisclosed residential setting.

“The district attorney has to make the decision, do they have a case without the confession? And clearly they do not,” Lobozzo said. “And they’ll have to decide whether to appeal part or all of the judge’s decision.”

The prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Melanie Portas, did not return a phone message seeking comment.

Lobozzo said that since his arrest, Covey has excelled academically and in his behavior. He said he wouldn’t want dismissal of the criminal case to disrupt that progress.

“His home life was challenging,” Lobozzo said.

The state has since taken custody of his younger siblings from his mother and stepfather, Charles Epps, who is now in jail.

While Covey was living at home, he often failed to turn in assignments for school and complete his homework. While at the state’s Long Creek Youth Development Center, he tested in the 90th percentile in multiple subjects for children in his age group, his attorney said.

“He’s a kid who absolutely should go to college and beyond,” Lobozzo said.

Covey is now in state custody in what Lobozzo would call only a residential setting. A representative from the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic has been assigned to look out for his interests and has filed paperwork with the state Department of Health and Human Services to form a permanent plan for the boy.

Covey’s mother did not respond to a request for comment.

For now, Covey still faces three counts of arson in juvenile court. Authorities say he started a fire on the porch behind the condemned building at 109 Blake St., where he lived with his family, which faced imminent eviction.

The fire spread and destroyed two adjacent buildings, at 172 Bates St. and 82 Pine St.

If convicted, Covey could be committed to a youth detention facility until he turns 21. His case is open to the public by Maine law, unlike many juvenile cases, because of the seriousness of the charges.

The fire that Covey is accused of starting was followed by unrelated arson fires on May 3 and May 6 in downtown Lewiston.

Another boy, Abdi Ibrahim, is charged with starting the fire on May 3. He was 12 at the time, and is now 13. He has denied four counts of arson in the blaze, which destroyed four apartment buildings.

The prosecution has filed a motion in Ibrahim’s case to have him evaluated for competency. Ibrahim’s attorney has opposed the motion. A court hearing is scheduled for next month.

Brian Morin, 30, and Bryan Wood, 23, were accused of starting the fire on May 6 that destroyed two vacant buildings on Bartlett Street.

Morin has pleaded not guilty to two counts of arson.

Justice MaryGay Kennedy ruled in August that Wood is incompetent to stand trial and likely will not be competent in the foreseeable future, leading to his case’s dismissal.

Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at:

sdolan@pressherald.com

Twitter: @scottddolan

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