The case against Foster Bates wasn’t airtight, but there was ample evidence he killed Tammy Dickson the night of Feb. 17, 1994, in her South Portland apartment.

Tammy Dickson

DNA at the scene. No alibi. Two witnesses who said the victim feared Bates.

It was enough for jurors to convict him in 2002, a verdict that led to a life sentence in prison.

Most murderers appeal their conviction once, but few fight as long as Bates, who is seeking post-conviction review for a third time and fiercely maintains his innocence.

His attorney, Peter Cyr, filed a motion Friday asking a judge to reject the state’s motion to dismiss the request for a new trial. The state has argued that the latest appeal wasn’t filed within the one-year deadline that is required when requesting a retrial based on new evidence. Bates’ fate again is in a judge’s hands.

The legal battle has been long and unsuccessful to date, but Bates remains hopeful.

In the past few years, two women have come forward with new information about the night Dickson was killed. One has told police that she saw Bates leave Dickson’s apartment that night and then saw Dickson alive immediately after. Another has alleged that another man confessed to killing a woman the day after Dickson died and even shared a chilling detail that the public would learn only after Dickson’s body was found – that her 18-month-old son was in a crib in the next room when it happened.

Additionally, Bates’ attorney has introduced new DNA evidence from a sock that was found stuffed in the victim’s mouth. There were three different DNA matches on the sock, but none were Bates.

In his mind, that new evidence, coupled with a conviction that was built largely on circumstantial evidence, should be enough to warrant a new trial. There have been plenty of examples across the country where wrongfully convicted people, many of them black men like him, have been granted new trials or even set free.

“It’s not even about retrying a case – it’s about justice,” Bates, now 51, said in an interview at the Maine State Prison in Warren.

The odds of him getting a new trial are long. In at least the past 30 years, only one murder case in Maine has been sent back for a new trial after conviction. That was in 2004, when convicted murderer Brandon Thongsavanh was granted a new trial after a judge ruled that prejudicial evidence was introduced by prosecutors. Thongsavanh was convicted at his retrial, too. The closest since was Anthony Sanborn, who had been seeking a new trial for nearly as long as Bates. Sanborn wasn’t granted a new trial but a judge did release him from prison early after hearing new evidence that appeared to cast substantial doubt about his conviction.

Foster Bates said in an interview at Maine State Prison in Warren that his bid for a new trial “is not even about retrying a case – it’s about justice.” Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Jim Burke, a University of Maine Law School professor who practiced for three decades, said the legal system is not set up for do-overs.

“The presumption, generally speaking, is that if you had a fair trial, you only get one,” he said, adding that his review of the case suggests Bates was treated fairly.

Bates said he thinks a lot about the role his race played in all of this and he wonders if anything has changed. Last month, his son Trevor Bates — who was an infant in 1994 and grew up to become a professional football player — was arrested for allegedly punching a police officer in New York City after failing to pay a $32 taxi fare. Bates said he believes his son, like him, was terrified of interacting with police and snapped.

“I love my country to death, boy, but being black in this country is hard,” said Bates, who was convicted of statutory rape in Massachusetts before being charged with Dickson’s murder.

Macomber, the assistant attorney general who has handled Bates’ case since 2008, said it’s unusual but not unprecedented for someone like Bates to keep pushing for a new trial. He called the latest attempt “frivolous.”

CASE IS WELL-DOCUMENTED

The case against Bates has been well-documented in court filings and news stories dating back 25 years.

Tammy Dickson grew up in the Biddeford-Saco area but left home when she was 15. By 22 she was living on the third floor of an apartment building in the Cortland Court complex in South Portland with her son, Marcus.

Her divorce from her son’s father, Anthony Dickson, was finalized weeks before her death. She was dating another man, William Quinn, on and off.

Friends said Dickson was outgoing and trusting. She kept her door unlocked. She was only 5 feet 2 inches and 100 pounds, and wore her dark brown hair short and spiky. She danced at Doctor’s, a local strip club that has since closed, and was part of an auto-racing crowd that spent weekends at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway in Scarborough.

The night she died, there was a party in her apartment building, which wasn’t unusual. People came and went.

Foster Bates, who grew up in southeastern Massachusetts, lived on the second floor of the building with his wife and infant son, Trevor. He was enrolled at what is now Southern Maine Community College and played on the basketball team.

Bates hadn’t been married long, but things weren’t going well. His wife had been hospitalized for mental health reasons after Trevor’s birth. Foster said he wasn’t looking to cheat on his wife; it just happened. Dickson babysat for his son. They sometimes drank or smoked pot together with others in the complex.

“I don’t know if it was opportunity or temptation, but it was the perfect situation. She was in the building,” Bates said of Dickson. “It was the dumbest thing I could do as a man, and it cost me my life.”

On the morning of Feb. 18, 1994, Dickson didn’t show up for her usual morning coffee with two friends who lived in the building. The friends thought it was odd, but Dickson was moving to Old Orchard Beach, so they figured she was busy.

Cortland Court apartments in South Portland, where Tammy Dickson lived in 1994, the year she was murdered. Staff photo by Derek Davis

But Dickson didn’t show up the next morning either.

They noticed her door was locked and her blinds drawn.

Wanda Fowler, one of the neighbors, contacted Dickson’s boyfriend, Quinn, that day. She knew he had a key.

When Quinn arrived, he saw Dickson’s body on the floor. He had to remove a blanket to see. Her hands and feet were bound. It appeared to have been done postmortem. She was blindfolded, and a sock was stuffed in her mouth. She was naked from the waist down.

Another neighbor, Melissa Harrington, later testified that Quinn was so shocked he couldn’t speak and nearly fell down the stairs as he backed out of the apartment.

Harrington went in next and made another discovery. In the next room, Dickson’s toddler son lay in a crib, dehydrated and hungry and barely moving. He had severe diaper rash. He was treated at a hospital and then released to his father. Marcus Dickson is now 26. He did not respond to a message left by a reporter.

Bates said he thinks about Marcus to this day.

THERE WERE NO DEFENSIVE WOUNDS

Police suspected Dickson was the victim of a sex crime turned deadly.

The cause of death was asphyxiation, or strangulation, but there were no defense wounds or other physical evidence of a struggle, other than the bruising around her neck, which police determined was from a belt.

Police interviewed several people who lived in the Cortland Court apartment building, including Bates. He told detectives that he knew Dickson but not well. She babysat his son and they sometimes saw each other at social gatherings in the building. Bates’ wife, Christy, told police that he had come home from a basketball game that night and was with her, sleeping.

Quinn was the first real suspect. Witnesses told police they had overheard he and Dickson yelling at each other a week before.

Quinn was jealous. He didn’t like that she danced at the strip club.

After police matched DNA at the scene to Quinn, Maine State Police called him in for questioning. According to court documents, detectives leaned on him hard and Quinn admitted that he could have gone to Dickson’s apartment that night in an alcohol-fueled blackout. He even said he could have killed her but had no recollection of anything.

But Quinn was not charged. The case started to go cold.

Things changed in 1998 when a new lead detective, Angela Blodgett, took over. She went back to the DNA and found a sample that hadn’t been tested fully. By that point, DNA technology had improved.

This time a new match emerged: Foster Bates. The semen found inside Dickson matched him.

By that time, Bates had moved from Maine back to Massachusetts with his wife, Christy, and their son, Trevor. Bates got into some trouble there, too. He was caught having sex with a 15-year-old girl. He says he didn’t know how old she was, but he was charged and convicted of child sexual assault and sentenced to three years in prison.

His wife filed for divorce and moved back to Maine with their son. Christy Bates also sought and received a protection from abuse order against her ex-husband, alleging that he had been abusive toward her during their marriage.

At some point after she returned to Maine, Christy again spoke to state police detectives about Dickson’s death and her husband’s whereabouts that night.

This time, she told a different story. She said her husband did come home that night but then immediately left and was gone from 10 p.m. until 3 a.m. She didn’t know where he went.

After zeroing in on Bates, police also interviewed two of Dickson’s friends – both of whom said that the victim was afraid of him.

Wanda Fowler was one of those friends. Reached through Facebook recently, Fowler said she didn’t want to revisit the case but is convinced police got the right guy.

INVESTIGATION CRITICIZED

Howard O’Brien, Bates’ attorney at trial, was critical of the investigation, calling it “sloppy” and “disorganized.” O’Brien argued that just because Bates and Dickson had sex, that didn’t make him a killer. Semen from two other men were found on clothing at the scene.

Bates’ attorneys cross-examined every state witness and tried to establish doubt. But their defense hinged on testimony from Bates himself. It didn’t go well.

Bates had to explain why he lied to police about his relationship with Dickson. He said he was trying to protect his wife and son. During cross-examination, assistant attorney general Fernand LaRochelle hammered Bates on lying about the affair.

Bates’ defense raised other issues: Why had Quinn been ruled out? Why wasn’t a taped interview of Quinn by detectives shared during discovery? Why were there no hairs or fingerprints at the scene that matched Bates?

But there were things that didn’t reflect well on Bates.

When police were looking to match blood samples, they identified about 30 men in Dickson’s orbit. Only one of them refused to give a sample voluntarily: Foster Bates.

O’Brien has since died. His co-counsel, David Beneman, now a federal public defender, declined to discuss the case, saying he didn’t want to interfere with the latest post-conviction review.

Beneman said during one of the appeals more than a decade ago that he interviewed jurors after the trial. Their decision, he said, was largely based on Bates’ own credibility, and they didn’t believe him.

The jury found him guilty of both rape and murder. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Bates filed his first appeal shortly after. He challenged the conviction on several fronts — that he was provided inadequate counsel, that his ex-wife should not have been allowed to testify, and that the all-white jury was biased.

“I can’t say the jury was racist, but that was not a jury of my peers,” Bates said.

The appeal was rejected, setting in motion a series of attempts at post-conviction review, with the goal of getting a new trial.

The first post-conviction review request was filed in August 2003. Before it was decided, Bates petitioned for new DNA analysis in 2005.

A Superior Court judge denied the bid for a new trial in 2007, but the original trial judge granted a motion the next year to conduct new DNA testing on a green sock that had been stuffed in Dickson’s mouth.

The case slowed while that testing occurred. It wasn’t until 2014 that Bates petitioned for a new trial again based on the results.

But the court denied that request, too.

Bates and his attorneys didn’t get to present new information from two new witnesses because they were not connected to the original premise – the new DNA. So they filed another request for post-conviction review.

Macomber, the prosecutor, said each time the case is reviewed, the victim’s family risks reliving it.

Messages left for Dickson’s mother and two of her sisters were not returned.

WILL JUDGE BELIEVE STATEMENTS?

Bates’ latest attempt at a new trial hinges on whether a judge will believe the statements of two women who have been deposed by his attorney and who also were interviewed for this story.

Melody Higgins has alleged that her now-deceased sister told a chilling story years ago: Her boyfriend had come home early one morning, extremely drunk. He started yelling about “killing a girl” and about a “baby in a playpen.”

That was Feb. 18, 1994. Two days later, Tammy Dickson’s body was found.

Higgins’ sister was terrified about what her then-boyfriend, Michael Bridges, had said that night, but she never told police. She told her sister about it, but Higgins too feared what the man might do if he knew she knew. So she stayed quiet.

Higgins had long assumed Dickson’s death was unsolved because it had been unsolved for the first several years. She didn’t know that Bates had been convicted of raping and murdering Dickson and that he was serving a life sentence in prison.

“I couldn’t get over this feeling that someone was locked up for something he may not have done,” Higgins said.

Five years ago, she found Bates’ attorneys and shared her story. That led them to Bridges’ niece, Amanda Indigo.

Indigo had been a teenager in 1994, living with her older sister in the same building as Dickson and Bates.

Indigo said she remembers seeing Bates go into Dickson’s apartment that night and come out less than a half hour later. Indigo then knocked on Dickson’s door and asked to use her phone. Dickson answered in a nightgown, Indigo said.

“I was the last person to see her alive,” Indigo said.

Indigo shared another detail: Her uncle was at a party in the building that night.

Police interviewed Bridges after he emerged as a possible alternative suspect in late 2014. He denied making any statement about killing anyone. He denied knowing Dickson or being in her apartment. He also voluntarily submitted a DNA sample, which excluded him as a potential match to any of the DNA collected as evidence, with the exception of the sock. His DNA wasn’t matched to the sock but it wasn’t excluded either.

Bridges, who spoke to a reporter by phone last month, said he had nothing to do with Dickson’s death. He said he’d take a lie-detector test to prove it.

“I had nothing to hide then or now,” he said.

Bridges, 55, who lives in Casco and works as a roofer, has a lengthy criminal history that includes convictions for criminal trespass, assault and terrorizing. Most of the charges date to the 1980s and 1990s, a period when Bridges says he abused alcohol.

Bates said he wants the new witnesses to tell their stories in court, in hopes that the judge, Roland Cole, concludes that the new evidence could cause a jury to deliver a different verdict.

His time at the Maine State Prison has been productive. In 2011 he became one of just three people to earn a bachelor’s degree under a program funded by Doris Buffett’s Sunshine Lady Foundation. He founded a prison chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. And he’s been heavily involved in encouraging fellow inmates to vote. Maine is one of just two states that allows prisoners to cast ballots.

Still, he knows people only see him as a liar and as a murderer.

“I got to live with that every day,” he said.

Correction: This story was updated at 10:15 a.m. Monday, March 4, 2019, to correct a factual error. There has been one murder case in Maine that has been sent back for a new trial after conviction.

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