The chief justice of the Maine Superior Court is keeping secret the document that falsely charged a South Paris man with manslaughter in a haunted hayride accident that killed a Messalonskee High School junior.

An Androscoggin County grand jury actually voted last week to charge David A. Brown, 55, with reckless conduct, a misdemeanor, for his role as the driver of the Jeep towing a trailer carrying passengers on the hayride. It did not charge him with manslaughter, aggravated assault and driving to endanger, all felonies, although it appears District Attorney Andrew Robinson was pursuing those indictments.

The grand jury did indict Harvest Hill Farms, the company, on charges of manslaughter, aggravated assault and driving to endanger in the Oct. 11 crash at the Mechanic Falls farm that injured 22 people and killed Cassidy Charette, 17, of Oakland.

After the grand jury rose, Robinson issued a statement Wednesday saying Brown faced felony charges, including manslaughter, which is the reckless taking of another’s life and is punishable by up to 30 years in prison. Robinson backtracked the following day, issuing another statement that said his previous announcement was wrong and had been based on an incorrect indictment signed by the grand jury foreman. Robinson attributed the mistake to a clerical error.

The court refused a request by the Portland Press Herald to provide a copy of the charging document that resulted in the erroneous charges.

“It’s the court’s view that this was part of an ongoing grand jury process and as such it’s confidential,” said Mary Ann Lynch, government and media counsel for the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Chief Justice of the Superior Court Roland Cole had issued an oral impoundment, but on Monday issued his written order impounding the document.

Cole said in his order that Robinson alerted him to the mistake on Thursday. The justice met with Robinson and with the grand jury foreman and reviewed the grand jury report documenting the votes in support of the proposed charges.

“It became clear that information provided by the district attorney as to the counts of an indictment against David A. Brown were only partially correct,” Cole said in his written order Monday. “It is clear that only Count 4 of the district attorney’s proposed indictment had the necessary votes to support the charge of reckless conduct. … I therefore impounded the original proposed indictment, as well as the record made by the court.”

The grand jury meets in secret and is presented information by prosecutors. A majority of jurors must vote for a charge for it to be brought against the defendant.

Sigmund Schutz, a First Amendment lawyer with Preti Flaherty in Portland, believes the document should be made public.

“Indictments are public records. Transparency is essential to maintaining public respect for the criminal justice system, ensuring its integrity and protecting the rights of the accused,” Schutz said Monday. He said a signed indictment, whether valid or not, issued by the grand jury is a public record under Maine’s court rules, as well as the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Schutz represents the Press Herald in First Amendment cases and filed a letter with the court asking that Cole reverse his decision.

Some indictments are impounded temporarily if there is a fear that disclosure of the charges might cause a defendant to flee, but those are made public after the person has been arrested.

Brown has not responded to efforts to contact him.

 


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